Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Finished Blindness by José Saramago, just 448 pages out of the 5,300 page ebook The Collected Novels of José Saramago (which is still just $33 at Powells!). Frequently included on lists of "most disturbing novels," it was pretty disturbing, but not on the level of American Psycho. I'm wondering if anything will be disturbing to me after reading it. Everything else seems a little precious in comparison.

Blindness begins with a man suddenly going blind while driving his car. It's a white blindness, instead of dark, and we soon find it's contagious. Others find themselves going blind as well, and the government quarantines the afflicted together in a mental asylum to contain the 'disease.' Terrified of the sickness, no officials, nurses, or doctors volunteer to live amongst them. The asylum quickly becomes a living hell. Among the hundreds of the newly blind is only one who can see: a curse more than a blessing.

Reading this book will really make you want to shower. The detailed descriptions of filth and odor that permeates their surroundings is pretty nauseating. You can only imagine how quickly conditions would deteriorate when locked in a space with hundreds of people who can't find the bathroom. Or take a bath. I kept picturing the nightmare worlds of Silent Hill. But maybe that's just because I'm playing Silent Hill 2 at the moment. At least Pyramid Head isn't in the book.

What I appreciate most about Saramago's writing is his honesty about how people would react faced with this situation. He presents the worst and the best of humanity. If he had truly set out to write something unabashedly 'extreme' or disturbing, he would've stuck with just the worst. I'm not entirely convinced the government would treat its quarantined citizens in the way depicted here. Then again, Saramago left the location of the city unknown, so who knows how the governments of particular countries would truly react. We all know what happened to Raccoon City (I swear that's my last video game allusion).

The blindness is of course a metaphor, but I'm honestly too lazy to figure out for what. I'm sure it's something profound. It would take a re-read to figure out I think. There's one particular scene in a church where all of the statues and portraits of saints, including Jesus, have blindfolds places over their eyes. The author was practically screaming LOOK AT THIS! THIS MEANS SOMETHING! Big bold neon lights flashing METAPHOR ALERT! But my brain was set on Homer Simpson mode. Ugh, it's probably something like, we didn't truly see each other before and that's why everyone went blind? Something like that. Plus Jesus?

You should read it and figure it out for me. It's really an incredible novel, and deserves a better, more attentive reader than I.

Here are some passages I liked. Saramago's writing style is pretty unique, using very few periods and lots of run-on sentences. It takes a while to get used to (and to figure out who's talking), but ultimately makes for smooth reading.

We all have our moments of weakness, just as well that we are still capable of weeping, tears are often our salvation, there are times when we would die if we did not weep.

There being no witnesses, and if there were there is no evidence that they were summoned to the post-mortems to tell us what happened, it is understandable that someone should ask how it was possible to know that these things happened so and not in some other manner, the reply to be given is that all stories are like those about the creation of the universe, no one was there, no one witnessed anything, yet everyone knows what happened.

Words are like that, they deceive, they pile up, it seems they do not know where to go, and, suddenly, because of two or three or four that suddenly come out, simple in themselves, a personal pronoun, an adverb, a verb, an adjective, we have the excitement of seeing them coming irresistibly to the surface through the skin and the eyes and upsetting the composure of our feelings, sometimes the nerves that cannot bear it any longer, they put up with a great deal, they put up with everything, it was as if they were wearing armour, we might say.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Guys Lit Wire Book Fair

Every year the Guys Lit Wire blog holds a book fair, rallying the online literary community to donate books to a deserving library. Past recipients have included an LA County Detention Center, a day school on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, and a deserving high school in Washington, D.C. This year they're sticking with D.C.'s Ballou Senior High School, since they're still very much in need of material for their students.

This year I'm donating Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, which I reviewed right here. Like I mentioned, I think it would make a terrific YA read, and I'm betting the students will love it. Though perhaps the 80s nostalgia will go right over their heads. Some of these kids, after all, were born the year Titanic came out. And may or may not know it was a real event and not just a movie. That...that's just disturbing.

If you're interested in helping out, check right here for all the details. Donations will be purchased from a Powells wishlist, and mailed directly to the library.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Internet Lovelies

My biggest problem with grocery shopping, and it isn’t the store’s fault in the least, is that I’m a complete sucker for anything new and different. Korean barbecue sauce? Gotta have that! Bacon horseradish potato chip dip? In the cart!
Then, once at home, I open my pantry and survey the irrational amounts of sauces, mixes, exotic ingredients, and just plain weird stuff (I’m sure I bought those anchovy-stuffed olives for a reason, I just don’t remember what it was). I very rarely eat salads at home, and yet I have eight different types of salad dressing. Why? Because Bacon Ranch!
What I need, and what the grocery stores will never provide, is someone to follow me through the store and just smack my hand whenever I reach for that interesting jar of mustard or that I-never-know-when-I-might-be-in-the-mood-for-Swedish jar of pickled herring in cream sauce.
Commenter "Jeff", Link

My refrigerator is a sad thing to behold. It very rarely contains anything that's 100% edible. If some natural disaster ever barricades me in my apartment, you'll probably find me emptying out jars of curry paste and balsamic vinaigrette onto dinner plates.

I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.
Kurt Vonnegut, in a 1973 letter to Charles McCarthy, head of the Drake High School school board, who had demanded that 32 copies of Slaughterhouse-Five be burned in the school's furnace. Link

Art is both love and friendship, and understanding; the desire to give. It is not charity, which is the giving of Things, it is more than kindness which is the giving of self. It is both the taking and giving of beauty, the turning out to the light the inner folds of the awareness of the spirit. It is the recreation on another plane of the realities of the world; the tragic and wonderful realities of earth and men, and of all the inter-relations of these.
Ansel Adams, in a 1937 letter to friend Cedric Wright. Link

That has to be my favorite definition of art I've come across so far.

And are you familiar with the site Letters of Note? You should be. It's only the greatest thing ever. It's a blog that shares incredibly interesting letters written by notable people from the past. Like this letter from an escaped slave written to his former master after emancipation. I want to go back in time and give that guy a high five. (btw, happy 150th Emancipation Day, D.C.!) Start browsing this site and I promise you'll only look up from the screen hours later. Reading before bed is not recommended.

Now. Let's talk Hunger Games.
Why should I care about your story? You have a bad job and want to be doing something different but feel paralyzed because of something and so you gchat with your friends all day the end. [Suzanne] Collins and [George R.R.] Martin keep you reading deep into the night because at the end of a chapter Katniss’ head suddenly falls off. And you’re like, her head just fell off??? I have to keep reading. Like holy crap. And so you stay up all night furiously turning pages. What happens at the end of your chapters? Someone doesn’t reply to your email or something. Or, like, 9/11 happens. I’m so fucking riveted.
Jim Behrle, Link

Saddest book title of all time: The Unreplied-to Email :(

Thich Nhat Hanh speaks out a lot about films and music that he thinks poison our minds. "We (writers) do not have the right just to express our own suffering if it brings suffering to others," he says. "Filmmakers, musicians, and writers need to practice Right Speech to help our society move again in the direction of peace, joy, and faith in the future."

I have a hard time agreeing with this. I do think that there are forms of entertainment whose sole purpose appears to be to excite people in unhealthy ways and generate profits. But almost every time I think I've come up with the perfect example of this, it turns out that either the makers of the thing had a higher purpose in mind than I'd imagined or that the fans of the thing got more out of it than I ever would.

I also think that many of the films, books and music that helped me get through my life -- particularly my adolescence -- would have probably been labeled "negative" by Mr. Hanh and his loyal followers. I can imagine him recommending me to watch Mary Poppins and listen to The Carpenters instead of reading Philip K. Dick and listening to the Sex Pistols. This would have ended up making me kill myself since I would never have known there were others just as dissatisfied with life as I was. At least that's how I take what he's said on the subject. And I'm certain I'm not alone in taking it that way.

In the case of Hunger Games, there's a lot of violence and ugliness. But that ugliness and violence appears to me to be intended to make an important commentary on contemporary society. So it's valid and good. You couldn't make the points they wanted to make without all the bloodshed.
Brad Warner, Link

I have a theory, and that theory is if you try to erase ugliness from your child's experience of the world (particularly entertainment-wise), the more likely it is they will turn out to be an asshole. It might would take a full-length dissertation to explain, but I'm convinced that watching crazy violent/morbid anime* as a youngster, reading A Tale of Two Cities before I even understood what monarchy meant, and listening to Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill and Metallica non-stop as a pre-teen made me grow up to be a better, kinder person.

* I dare you to watch part 10 and not weep in mortification at the unfairness and temporal nature of life. But also unicorns and rainbows!

I learned a long time ago that life often introduces young people to situations they are in no way prepared for, even good girls, lucky girls who want for nothing. Sometimes, when you least expect it, you become the girl in the woods. You lose your name because another one is forced on you. You think you are alone until you find books about girls like you. Salvation is certainly among the reasons I read. Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.
Throughout the books, Katniss endures the unendurable. She is damaged and it shows. At times, it might seem like her suffering is gratuitous but life often presents unendurable circumstances people manage to survive. Only the details differ. The Hunger Games trilogy is dark and brutal but in the end, the books also offer hope—for a better world and a better people and for one woman, a better life for herself—a life she can share with a man who understands her strength and doesn’t expect her to compromise that strength, a man who can hold her weak places and love her through the darkest of her memories, the worst of her damage. Of course I love these books. The trilogy offers the kind of tempered hope everyone who survives something unendurable hungers for.
Roxane Gay, Link

The book wasn't perfect. Neither was the film. But my god, I'm so happy they exist. Everything about the story screamed against them becoming so outrageously popular, and yet, here they are. I love it.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Hallelujah Giant Space Wolf

April is national poetry month. Just another month dedicated toward something we should always pay attention to, but for some reason don't. I bet dystopian YA authors are all like "why isn't there a national YA dystopian novel month????" Well because every month is YA dystopian novel month. Duh.

I was excited to get Daniel Bailey's Hallelujah Giant Space Wolf in the mail. Pre-ordering books makes me feel like a wizard; conjuring up literature from the depths of the internet, and having it delivered directly into my hands. It obviously doesn't take much for me to feel like a wizard.

It's hard to take portions of poems and share them -- out of context a stanza can lose its meaning, or even make up the entire poem. But I'm still going to try. Sorry. These are too good not to share.

I believe the people who say that God is a woman
but they forgot to mention her sadness
or how my body is not of her image
or how the ocean is a body with fish for blood

nothing is still a term of emptiness that I keep inside me like fur on the lungs
I try hard not to think of all the bad things I have done to the inside of me
not knowing what I was doing, putting all manner of things into me
swords, plant growth hormone, monuments to smallness, the almighty
I want my faith to be emptied out like bursts of last night's drinking
my god, the faith that I consume is enough to drown a rat, so let it
when water hits dust it all settles down into nothing, so let it
all the unborn babies in the world are unborn so let them not be
born into a world that still shakes at a promise like a hawk-dive field
where the rats get picked up like rocks by the river by a child on vacation
to a small state border battlefield where old men are honored
by the throwing of rocks into cold rivers overrun with tourists

I really like the absence of end-line punctuation in poems. One simile flows into another so seamlessly that you forget what was being described in the first place. Like in the segment above: it's a promise, then rats, then rocks, by a river, in a battlefield, overrun by tourists. It works. Kind of reminds me of these "run-on sentence" stories I used to write in high school. Bored in computer science class, a friend and I would spend every day writing insane stories in MS Word, saving them to my purple 3.5" floppy disk with the frog sticker on it. Sometimes I would start typing and she would click the mouse at random points in the document; the result being a big textual slide puzzle. Picasso on computer paper. We were Gertrude Steins without trying. But I specialized in one sentence stories. One in particular I remember consisted of just one giant run-on sentence, 5 pages in length. I think it was Dragonball Z themed. I took some creative writing courses as an undergrad, but I'll never again be as creative as when I was just a bored kid, not trying to be creative.

I probably still have that floppy disk somewhere, being a hoarder of inane high school memorabilia. It took 5 years before I would throw away my 11th grade calculus notebook. One day my grandkids will find the floppy disk and feel nothing.


I don't know the difference
the meaning of life
the meaning of life

society is angry and that makes me mad
planting a bomb in your neighbor's garden
will not teach him a lesson
planting a flower in your neighbor's mailbox
does not mean that you are a good person

we will never be good people
we will never be right, we will not
the cats are all sleeping and the forks are quiet
and someday jupiter will not exist
and someday the earth will not exist
and someday love will not exist
and some days I really do love you

and that is why I am so quiet most of the time


this moment is strange
it is like a bird egg planted into the soil
allowed to incubate for a time
only to hatch a snake

it is like the pilgrims
who sailed to the moon
to be closer to God
because the direction
of God is up
only to find that on the moon
up is where they used to be

Poems I wanted to quote in their entirety but I better not because that would probably violate copyright law and get points subtracted from Gryffindor:


You should buy Daniel Bailey's book. And read other poetry too. It will make you think about death and get sad and stuff. But also make you remember why you like words so much. And stuff.

And thanks, blogger, for taking away the automatic spacing in html editing! I really enjoyed typing in all the < br >'s by hand in the blockquotes! I'm being sarcastic!