Book.Review: Blindness

blindnessI’m not sure how Nobel prizes are handed out. I believe it is based on an author’s body of work, not just on one book, but after reading Blindness, I’m unwilling to read any more of José Saramago’s books to find out if, in my opinion of course, he deserved the prize.

You can think what you want, that maybe I’m not intellectual enough to appreciate this book that “has swept the reading public with its powerful portrayal of man’s worst appetites and weaknesses-and man’s ultimately exhilarating spirit.”*  To be very blunt, I thought this book, Blindness, was crap.

[Sorry, but crap is a funnily appropriate term considering Saramago’s obsession with shit.]

The books wasn’t compelling, and it could easily have been. The story was there, the storytelling was not.

I got past his “…long blocks of unbroken prose, lacking conventional markers like paragraph breaks and quotation marks…”**  I struggled with how the point of view was all over the place: third person, head-hopping, first person, and the much confusing we used when Saramago interjected himself into the novel to have a short conversation with the reader, just in case you, the reader, weren’t smart enough to get the point. Near the end, even the dog got a chance to share its point of view.

I don’t have problems with difficult books. I’ve read Faulkner’s Sound and Fury, for goodness sake. I actually love Faulkner, and have read most of his books. I’ve read Dostoyevsky and Eco, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. I’ve read Borges and Marquez. And I’ve read quite a few of the other Nobel Laureates, and that’s why I don’t understand how this book could have gained the following it has. These other authors, their stories engaged me as a reader. Blindness did not.

What bothered me was two fold.

One, I didn’t care about the characters, not really. [I told myself I was going to finish this book whether I wanted to or not, because I felt it had to have some redeeming qualities. It didn’t.]  It wasn’t until I was about half-way through, when the doctor’s wife realized she had the scissors, that I actually got just a teensy bit interested in what might happen, but even that fell a flat, was too predictable.

The doctor’s wife would have been a great protagonist. The one person who can see in a city of blind people, how could that not be more engrossing than the “village chorus”**?

Did I mention that no one had names, that they were the first blind man and the doctor’s wife and the boy with the squint, etc? Maybe that was a way of being clever, of trying to show how blindness can de-humanize us, but it put distance between me and the characters. I didn’t connect with any of them, not even during the most horrific scenes.

And finally, regarding characters, it felt very obvious that this book was written by an old man. The women were two-dimensional, more so than the men. They were either whores or mothers or crazy, mostly whores. I really disliked his treatment of women, and not in the way you would imagine. The rape scenes and the surrounding text did not anger me because those scenes felt like possibly the only true to life scenes in the book. I just felt like I didn’t care about these women. They were all whores or crazy, and uninteresting whores and crazies at that.

Two, the book felt antiquated. I kept thinking it was written in and about the 1930-40s, until he would throw in a term like microwave or AIDS that made me stop and wonder too many things that kicked me out of the story.

Why were none of the women concerned about birth control or the spread of venereal diseases? With all the shit everywhere, why did none of the women get infections? [Old man writing?] Why did no one have a computer? And considering the problems the sighted doctor’s wife dealt with in the city, were there no flashlights with batteries? Really? In a city of blind people, you’d think flashlights wouldn’t be in high demand. Where were the malls? the REIs? Where were the religious fanatics? Surely someone in the hospital would have been shouting how this was all God’s will, that he was punishing sinners. Where were the drug addicts going through withdrawal? Why did no one in the hospital have cancer or diabetes or require special medicines? Did no one get a cold or have a headache?  Did no one bring a bag full of drugs, over the counter or not? Why, out of 200+  inmates, did only one person bring a gun?

Did the blindness intentionally take the good, the old, the boring people first?

I just couldn’t relate to these people or the problems they were having. The people in Saramago’s world were more concerned with filth, with how everything was covered in shit and piss, than with realities. Saramago must have had some psychological problem with cleanliness. I get it. It smelled really bad and felt really bad, conditions were unsanitary, but if you say it more than three times you’re beating the reader over the head with it and showing the world your own obsessions.

He needed to show us what real people deal with everyday, things that would have been exacerbated by blindness. Things besides their bathroom habits.

Maybe a lot of these things were in the book but I just didn’t care enough to remember. Maybe they were too subtle for me to notice, or maybe I’m not intelligent enough to get it. Or maybe they were covered over with shit.

I gave this book two-stars because I did finish it. I didn’t want to, but I did.

 * Blindness (Amazon)

** José Saramago, Nobel Prize-Winning Portuguese Writer, Dies at 87

Book.Review: The Silkworm

silkwormThe Silkworm is Robert Galbraith’s (J.K. Rowling’s pseudonym) second Cormoran Strike novel. In this second book, aptly named Cormoran has become more three-dimensional. In the first book, he seemed more of a “character” than a real person, but J.K. Rowling has done an excellent job of making him more well-rounded, and I look forward to reading another Cormoran Strike novel.

The plot is complex, intriguing, and well done. One of the main characters is a self-important, one-hit-wonder author who has written a grizzly, psycho-sexual novel called Bombyx Mori (Latin for silkworm). A dark, somewhat disturbing story about ambition and excess, about need and desire builds from there. About a third of the way into the book, I figured out whodunit, but not why or–and this is the clincher for me–how it was done. There were a couple of twists that I didn’t see coming, even though in retrospect, Ms. Rowling gave me all the clues. It was all there, right in front of me and I didn’t see it. So I had to keep reading to find out how it was done. And why.

Bottom line, I loved this story.

Now for the writer-ish critical part of my review: the head-hopping and author intrusions frequently threw me out of the story, and actually made me laugh in a couple of places which I don’t think Ms. Rowling intended, because this is a dark story, a story of mental and physical perversions. This isn’t Harry Potter, by no means. The prose is beautiful at times, and she’s a good enough writer that she shouldn’t be lazy with her writing. She shouldn’t depend on crutches to get the story across. Every class I’ve ever gone to has taught that both head-hopping (jumping between characters’ points of view is bad… except in romance, of which this isn’t one) and author intrusion are bad, bad, bad… and more importantly, the sign of a novice author.

The one author intrusion that literally made me laugh out loud goes like this: “Male heads turned to look at her as she walked to the bar, but Strike did not notice.” Really? If he didn’t notice, and we are in his head at that time, how do we know it happened? Sadly, this sentence didn’t add anything to the story. It could have easily been left out, and I wouldn’t have been laughing at one of my favorite authors.

And the other one that made me laugh, and worse, threw me out of the story for a few seconds because I had to think about whether it was true author intrusion or just me being picky: “Preoccupied with his own comfort, a mixture of football and murder on his mind, it did not occur to Strike to glance down into the snowy street….” Again, we are supposed to be in his head. So if it didn’t occur to him, who is telling us that it didn’t occur? I decided it was author intrusion. The one clause where it doesn’t “occur” to him to glance down, that clause could also have been left out. By that point in the book, we know the weather is awful and dangerous, especially for a one-legged man.

I won’t give examples of the head-hopping. There are too many to list.

I have to question the double standard. Can well-known authors break all the rules, and yet, we still love them because they’re celebrities? If I had written this book, would it have been panned, possibly never seen the light of day because of its lazy writing style? If well-known authors can break these rules, why are lesser- or un-knowns held to a higher standard?

With that said, I loved this book, and I will read the next one in the series.

Book.Review: The Wasp Factory

811obWmIWGL__SL1500_Jayzus Christ on a Moped, what a deeply disturbing book The Wasp Factory is.  Sorry, but that was my initial reaction. And that is the best, most illuminating description I can give it. The story is a puzzle buried in all too vivid images that will give you nightmares and have you speculating whether the person standing beside you is a potential killer.

The Wasp Factory was Iain Bank’s first book, published in the ’80s, and is told in first person by the sixteen-year-old protagonist, Frank Cauldhame. I don’t do book synopses in my reviews because I don’t like to give away the story. What I can say is that Frank, to say the least, is not a particularly sympathetic character. Intriguing, yes. Compelling, yes. But likeable, understandable, absolutely not.

Surely controversial at its publishing and now, I can see why this book launched Bank’s career. I wanted to put it down. But I couldn’t. Every time I picked it up, I cringed at the idea of reading another page, but I kept reading, trying to uncover the clues to the enigma that is Frank Cauldhame. It made me squeamish, with it’s unashamed descriptions of animal abuse and more veiled descriptions of child abuse, and it made me wonder what kind of world could create such a person, which I suppose is what Bank’s was trying to achieve.

It also made me reflect on my own state of mind, on how I have become immune to human suffering,  how I can breeze through detective and thriller novels that depict humans, adult humans, being abused, even tortured, in the most horrible ways and not be the least bit disturbed. And yet, let a protagonist, and hence an author, hurt a dog or rabbit– or sheep, for that matter –I become sick at heart, and I usually put the book down to never be picked up again. Because I can not imagine the cruelty, don’t want to imagine the cruelty of a human who can hurt animals and children. People who abuse animals and children are beneath contempt. No matter how mentally defective they are, how abused they themselves have been, I can find no sympathy for someone like that, and I personally hope there’s a special hell for those people.

So I wondered why an adult being abused does not affect me, at least not as drastically. Why I can read a grizzly detective novel and not flinch. The only reason I can come up with is that humans, most especially adult humans, are the primary source of cruelty in this world. I have lost all faith in human kind and see the abuse one gives another as a sad commonality in our world, whether by greed, stupidity, or mental defect. What I abhor is the abuse of something, someone who can’t defend itself.

Why did I keep reading? I don’t know. Frank’s actions and Bank’s descriptions disgusted me. And yet the writing compelled me to try to understand Frank. And I applaud Bank’s for not trying to make Frank a sympathetic character. It would have cheapened the story.

I certainly won’t read The Wasp Factory again. And I will think long and hard about reading any more of Iain Bank’s books. But I will give it 4-stars because it is a work of art. However horrible a picture it portrays, it is a work of art all too vividly portraying the human condition.

10 Books that Have Never Left You – What are Your Ten?

IMG_20140906_140406A while back a friend–I think it was Kathleen–pinged me on FB to list ten books that have stayed with me over the years.   I know the challenge is to just list them without really thinking about it, but that’s not who I am. I over think everything. No, really. I know I do.

I’m challenging you to do the same. Whether it’s here as a comment or on FB.  I ended up with a dozen, because I can never follow the rules, well, not exactly.

But you only have to do ten.  Unless you want to do more.

~ o ~

This challenge provided me the perfect opportunity to think about two of my favorite things: books and me.

So the real question is what does it mean that a book, its story has stayed with me. I can remember many–I’ll even go as far as to say most–of the books I’ve read. That doesn’t imply that I can remember the title, because I have been known to buy books that are either already sitting on my shelf or that I’ve already read. [I love that Amazon tells me, umm, yeah, we see that you already own that book. With an implied: dumbass.]

Anyway, instead of pondering why books stay with me, I’m just going to list the books that have most influenced me, in my life and my writing.  And a short bit about why. Most of these I have read multiple times. That I’d go back and re-read a book, several of them many times, when there are so many good books available, says more than any theory I can provide as to why they stayed with me.

(1) Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

000download (2)I read this in high school and was enthralled with Mr. Vonnegut’s writing. But it was the idea behind the book that kept evolving in my head that made me love this book. The story is funny and sad at the same time. It gave me perspective, if that is possible in a sixteen year old, on man’s stupidity, man’s willingness to destroy everything around him in the eternal search for more/better/happiness. And it helped developed my style of handling authority. I will never forget the ending, the image of Man’s final act of giving the finger to You Know Who.

(2) Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

This is another one I read in high school, only this time I was scrunched down under the covers in a spooky, supposedly haunted house. Haunted, interestingly enough, by Mr. King, or so said Nettie, our housekeeper. But back to the novel… I had always loved scary movies, so this was a natural progression. Back then kids didn’t have TVs in their bedrooms. And in the living room, we only had three channels. We read books. But what impressed me about this book was how well, how easily Stephen King could get into my head. And scare the crap out of me. If you’ve read his better books (and there are some I sincerely do not like), you’ll understand what I mean. Since reading Salem’s Lot I have been an ardent fan of Stephen King.

(3) Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

You’ll see references to Practical Magic in my own novel, An Untold Want.  My story is nothing like the one told in Practical Magic, but it is the story that nudged me to write my novel. I love Alice Hoffman’s way of telling stories.

(4) The Odyssey by Homer

You’re thinking, finally something classical and meaningful. Yes, this book was so meaningful to me, so powerful that I ended up with a degree [one of three] in Classical Culture and the ability [sadly, a skill that has faded into oblivion] to read ancient Greek. How amazing is it that someone living 2500 years ago, without the use of a laptop, without even writing it down, created something so brilliant, so beautiful as the story of Odysseus and his efforts to return home? This book has everything. Action, intrigue, romance, betrayal, murder, magic. Everything.

(5) The Mystery of the Gingerbread House by Wylly Folk St. John

000downloadThis book would be considered pre-teen now; back then it was just a kid’s book.  I read it when I was nine, maybe ten. And it started my love of mysteries. The book blurb: “An abandoned baby. A locked trunk. A man called Finch. A stolen car ring. And a missing grandmother. Ronny and Greg Jameson didn’t realize that one girl could be so full of mystery. But that was before they met Evie Hollis.”  What inquisitive kid wouldn’t want to read it?

This book is so old, when in a nostalgic moment I looked for it on-line, it was out of print, but I did find a copy recently on eBay or some such site. Amazon now has some re-prints, though third-party vendors.

Wylly Folk St. John wrote the Southern version of Nancy Drew. And when I go back and read these books, it makes me realize that there is some of Ms. St. John’s style in my writing.  She even wrote one called The Secret of the Seven Crows.  If you’d like to read more about her, there’s a nice post here on WordPress:  Wylly Folk St. John -A Life In Words

(6) Shingebiss — unknown

This is not a novel, not even a full book, but I remember it so well from my childhood, from my mother reading it to me from a big book of fairy tales, that I went and found it in print.

Shingebiss is the story of perseverance and self-confidence, or at least that’s how I remember it. If you know anything of my history, you’ll know that it’s an interesting concept that my mother often read this to me.

The book blurb [a re-print]: “… this ancient Ojibwe story captures all the power of winter and all the courage of a small being who refuses to see winter as his enemy. This sacred story shows that those who follow the ways of Shingebiss will always have plenty to eat, no matter how hard the great wind of Winter Maker blows.”

(7) Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

How can you not love social statements encapsulated in humor? The main character is Brother Brutha.  If you haven’t read this book, you should. ‘Nuff said.

(8) The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

To be honest, I don’t even remember what the story is about, but I loved that it is a story within a story within a story. I loved the writing. I need to go back and read it again, for the third time.

(9) Light in August by William Faulkner

061281b0c8a0fdff169c9110.LAnother perseverance book, by one of my all time favorite authors. I love long complex sentences. Faulkner gives me something to chew on and has affected my writing style significantly.

“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.”

— William Faulkner, Light in August,”Chapter Six

(10) Throat by Peter Straub

A dark, intellectual thriller, it is the last in the Blue Rose trilogy. I read this one first, and then read the other two books, then re-read this one, several times. Like Stephen King, Peter Straub understands and expertly uses the mechanics of writing a dark story that gets in your head and burrows into the soft brain matter, taking root. That’s what makes it disturbing. Not that it’s a dark story. It’s disturbing because it makes you wonder, long after you’ve put it down.

(11) American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This is one of the books that I’ve read many times. I will say that if you aren’t versed in mythology it may not make any sense, or at best be difficult to understand. I love this book because of the layers and layers of complexity. I read it the first time because of the mythology. Read it again for depth of the story. It’s like one of those movies where every time you watch it you see something different.

(12) Imagica by Clive Barker

000567704Last listed, but certainly not least, is Imagica. Take the complexity and depth of Straub’s and Gaiman’s books, the in your head style of Stephen King, and add a lot of grizzly, disturbing horror to it, and you’ve got Clive Barker. Imagica is 900 pages of earth-based, dark, violent fantasy which questions everything we know about the universe. About “themes such as God, sex, love, gender and death.”

~ o ~

I could go on for days talking about books that have stayed with me, but this has become a long post, and I’m tired after a long week at my soul-sucking job. If you want more info on books I’ve read, you can check my Goodreads author page.

Or you can pick your own.

Book.Review: The Goldfinch

IMG_20140606_184503

I picked up The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt because it sounded intriguing.  I’m trying to remember if it had already been designated a Pulitizer prize winner when I purchased it. What I do remember is that I very much enjoyed Ms. Tartt’s novel The Secret History and thought that this should be a good book too.

But this book, this book really tried my patience.  The story is good, some of the prose beautiful, but as so many of the Amazon reviewers stated, Ms. Tartt needed an honest editor. The Goldfinch should have been about 450 pages, not 750 pages. The (asides) started driving me crazy about two chapters in, and there are lots of them. So many that I started skipping over whole Kindle pages of text nested inside parentheses. Most added little to the story line. And finally after dragging myself though Potter’s –Theo Decker’s– miserable self loathing, what with his ability to take one minute of action and introspect it into thirty pages of mental gymnastics, I got near the end and Ms. Tartt apparently decided that parentheses weren’t enough.  At about the 98% mark on the Kindle, I ran into this artificial construct:

[As for Pippa: ………  three pages more ] new paragraph [You can have either… another page] pages of regular text [That little guy… a BUNCH more pages] and so on.

BTW, there are parentheses’d asides inside this ridiculous formatting choice. I say ridiculous, because I still can not figure out what the brackets are supposed to indicate.

I almost quit reading. At 98% finished, I almost quit reading.

If you knew me better, you’d realize that it takes a lot for me to leave a book unfinished. You’d realize that I love long complicated sentences. I love f’ed up, unlikable characters.  That I write long complicated sentences about unlikable characters, sentences which often get dinged, by readers and teacher, for being too long, too complicated, or too introspective.  In my books, I don’t use asides contained within parentheses. Yes, I frequently do so in my blog, but my blog posts are short, and the asides do not stop the flow of the story, which Ms. Tartt does frequently with these unnecessary aside. I don’t even like it when Stephen King does (asides), and he owns my heart.

So even though I, too, write these long, complicated sentences about unlikable characters, quite a few times I considered just tossing The Goldfinch. In 750 pages, the only interesting character is Boris, and in many places she has made him quite two-dimensional. All the other characters are predictable, except for maybe Welty. Sadly, Welty played a very small part in the book.

So what I’m asking myself is how this book won a Pulitzer. It’s a formatting nightmare. The plot is interesting, but the characters are stereotypical at best. The protagonist is detestable, often boring in his continual mental-flagellation. And with fifteen pages left to read, I don’t believe that he’s changed.  Ms. Tartt even pulled a deus ex machina when she has Boris sweep in and save the day, apparently so that Theo doesn’t have to change.  With fifteen pages to go, I still feel like Theo — Theo, whose name translates into god in Greek — is rationalizing his mistakes. A god he is not. Not even Dionysus. Dionysus isn’t that whiny. I think I would have preferred an ending where Boris didn’t show up to save the day.

I’m still considering whether I want to bother and read those last fifteen pages. I probably will, but only to see if anything gets any better. I’m not holding my breath.

This book had so much potential, from it being written by a brilliant author to the brilliant plot. But it appears that Ms. Tartt’s ego is bigger than her common sense or her editor’s persuasion ability.  I’m giving The Goldfinch 3-stars, because of my rating system, and because I’m trying to be generous. Of the nine thousand plus reviews on Amazon, nearly a nine hundred of them are one-star reviews, and over a thousand are two-star reviews. So I am being more generous than many.

As a reader, I doubt I will invest the time in another of Ms. Tartt’s novels. As a writer, I’m perplexed that something like this could win a Pulitzer. As a new author, I know that if I had written this novel, I wouldn’t have gotten an agent or publisher to look twice at it.

If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your opinion and why you hold that opinion.