Thursday, August 14, 2008

Literature Miscellanea Updates

Well, I finished Jose Saramago's novel Blindness and I also completed my bucket list goal of reading through all of the 58 original Hardy Boys mysteries with completion of mystery number 58 last week.

With regard to Blindness, I would give it a "B+" rating. It was well-written, gripping, and extremely intriguing in an allegorical manner. The main philosophical question it poses is twofold, as I see it: (1) From a literalist point of view, what would a world be like if we were all blind? How would we survive? As humans? Or as animals? (2) Are we already effectively blind? Do we see the world we live in, but think we are blind to it? More succinctly, is what we are seeing registering as it should in our consciousness? Do we actually live in the world of the blind as the novel depicts it, but don't see the horrors of it for having become inured to it?

Although it is a very good novel, I couldn't bring myself to give it an "A" in part because I found the dialogue between characters at times to be unnecessarily disconcerting and discordant. But my main beef with the novel is that I just didn't find anything redeeming in the storyline or in the characters. It was actually quite disturbing and the way it ended I thought was a bit cheap [SPOILER ALERT!!]: it pretended to give some closure to the story with what could be called a "happy" ending by having people's sight restored. So the reader can exit the disturbing imaginary of this blind world with a sigh and the comfort of knowing that now things will be put back to right, without ever taking it to the logical conclusion of what one assumes its point really is: what IS the end point of a humanity reduced by blindness? Is there salvation without the "deus ex machina"? Is there an upward point, an aspirational hope for humanity, after it hits rock bottom? Or is there just rock bottom and then death?

Even still, I have to say that the novel pulls you along. The grotesque descent of humanity as it faces its blindness is what drives the reader to constantly plow into the next chapter. It's like you can't stand what you've just read and are horrified by it; but the recognition that there is yet more to read taps into that morbid fascination we humans have with wanting to know how much more horrifying and worse can it get. At one level, we don't want to know the answer to this, but we can't resist finding out in spite of ourselves.

I do, though, have to say that I am intrigued how the movie, based on the novel and scheduled for release next month, will turn out. I can't imagine that the movie will not distort the graphic and, in some ways, Nietzschean nihilistic narrative in order to create a Hollywood ending of redemption with all the warm and fuzzies therein necessary to sell tickets. But we shall see.

I am also in the midst of composing a detailed five part posting on Harry C. Boyte's excellent text, Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life. I should have the first part of this five part posting out in the next day or two, with subsequent parts following soon thereafter.


Eric said...

Blindness sounds interesting... this is the third good review I have heard on ths book in a week, I may have check it out. Although, I do hate it when authors stick a happy ending at the end of a story just because it would have been too depressing to follow it to its logical conclusion (one of the reasons I like Cormac McCarthy: he'll follow a storyline straight into the flames of Hell, and then leave it there to burn for eternity).

Here's a reading question for you: What books are your kids enjoying these day? We are at a peculiar phase in our daughter's reading, she can read at an advanced enough level to tackle just about anything she wants, but she is still intimidated by thicker books with few or no pictures. She enjoys having us read chapter books to her at bedtime, but won't pick them up on her own yet. She really got into the Spiderwick Chronicles books last year (which we finished just before the movie came out), and would read those by herself, but since then she hasn't been as enthusiastic about any other series we've tried. She will read the Junie B. Jones books, but I am trying to find some stuff with a more complex plot lines, the kind of books that really develop a love of reading because they tell such good stories. I've been holding on starting the Harry Potter series as bedtime reading until she is a bit more comfortable with bigger books (and I'm tired of holding off, because i have been waiting 7 years to read any of the HP books until I could read them with my daughter!).

We've been buying her some kid's graphic novels lately, with the hopes that these will get her used to reading a thicker book with a more advanced storyline. She has been eating them up. A couple that she has really enjoyed:

The Babymouse series: These are great for little girls. Sort of like Calvin & Hobbes meets Ramona Quimby. She read and re-reads these books.

Amulet: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi - The first of a series (the 2nd hasn't been released yet), it has great artwork and a storyline guaranteed to grab any kid's attention.

Huck said...

Hi, Eric - Thanks for the comments. Before I get to your question, I have a favor to ask you. I want to read a Larry McMurty novel, but I want to start off on the right foot. Can you recommend the right one to get me started?

OK. Now to your question ... My youngest daughter, the first grader is only now beginning to read on her own. But the kinds of stories she seems to be engaged by at the moment are the Magic Tree House series books. They're pretty basic and probably below the reading level of your daughter, but my youngest seems to like the stories and she feels comfortable enough making the effort to try to read them, though she struggles with the vocabulary.

My oldest daughter, who is in the Fifth Grade has been a voracious reader he whole reading life. I can't remember what, exactly she was reading in Second Grade; but I know she's read the Spiderwick Chronicles and the Junie B. Jones series. But if I remember correctly, my daughter might have been reading the Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl books, too. Another one of those old-fashioned series that my oldest daughter seemed to enjoy reading were the Boxcar Children books.

Come to think of it, we've let my daughter read one Harry Potter book per year, which she can start on her birthday. This past July (which is when she has her birthday) she read The Goblet of Fire, which means that she was reading by herself the first Harry Potter book (The Sorcerer's Stone) the summer before she started the second grade. I also remember reading with her the entire Chronicles of Narnia series at about that time. I love those books and I'm currently reading them to my youngest now.

Also, not sure what you think of the Lemony Snicket books, but my oldest daughter has read those books some years ago as well. They might be something your daughter might enjoy, though. And when she gets to the 3rd grade or so, I would recommend the Madeleine L'Engle books, though you should probably read them with her.

For some single book recommendations that are simply great books with good story lines and even some thoughtful treatments of the complexities of social relations, books that I think your daughter might be able to handle on her own or might enjoy reading with you, are the following:

Frindle by Andrew Clements (secret admission: it's a great book for an age appropriate lesson in entrepreneurialism, individual achievement, and creativity. As an adult reader of the book, I loved the book and its bigger message.)

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park. (Another great story about patience, perseverence, and a belief in the power of excellence.)

If I can think of any more, I'll post them.

Eric said...


Thanks for the list, I will definitely keep these in mind. Another book I have heard many people praise as an excellent transitional book for kids is "The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls" by Elise Primavera. I ordered it from Amazon the other day.

I think my daughter would love Roald Dahl, and we haven't trieed any of those yet. I tried the Narnia books on her last year, but they just did not seem to catch her imagination. She didn't even like the Narnia movies much, which suprised me. Tried reading The Hobbit to her, with the same results. She likes fantasy stuff in relation to faeries, but is hit and miss on other sub-genres of fantasy (she loved "Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg" by Gail Levine). Lemony Snickett might be a good idea as well.

Maybe I should spring Atlas Shrugged on her. Talk about lessons in entrepreneurialism!

Regarding McMurtry, there are two ways to go. For pure storytelling, you can't beat Lonesome Dove as an entry into his writing. McMurtry has said this book was an attempt to recreate Don Quixote in America, and while it falls short of that, it gets a hell of a lot of points for effort . The common refrain goes something like, "If you only read one Western in your life, this is the one." I've never talked to anyone who read this book and didn't enjoy it.

However, my single favorite thing about McMurtry's writing is that I think he understands the modern American West, and especially its rural parts, better than any other author I've read. And this understanding is best represented in his novels that revolve around the fictional town of Thalia, TX (The Last Picture Show being the most popular of these). My favorite of this series is titled "Duane's Depressed" and it makes for excellent reading, even outside the rest of Thalia chronology.

One thing about McMurtry, he is a prodigious writer, and when he hits he hits big... but he misses big, too: he's written his share of crap! I'm glad I didn't start out with "Texasville", "Telegraph Days", or "All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers" (considered by some misguided souls to be his best novel), because I'd probably have not given him another chance.