Of Blindness, Rabies and Whales

I had another accidental exercise in reading preferences – very similar to what happened to me while reading Crazy for Vincent/Intimacy.

I started reading Saramago’s Blindness alongside Borislav Pekić’s Rabies (Besnilo), having no idea what Blindness is about (I like knowing as little as possible about a book). Turns out – again – the books are eerily similar, yet completely different.


Moby Dick Syndrome

Some books are just…no. Simply no. Blindness is one of those “No-Books” for me. Reading it was a torture, and I still cannot grasp what pushed me to finish it. Maybe it was the Moby Dick Syndrome. Let’s just say, I know there is a white whale somewhere on those pages, but not only did I not catch it, I did not even hear it.

Blindness did manage to pull me in at the start. Lack of proper names, difficulty of discerning who was speaking and the seamless transitions between sections blinded me. It made me feel like I was a part of the epidemic and it foreshadowed an amazing immersive experience (which it failed to deliver).

In Rabies, Pekic’s wild and erratic style makes you feel mad, teetering on the edge of sanity (and humanity). And even though I had a lot of difficulty navigating through it (it took two tries), I got my white whale in the end and I loved every minute of the hunt.

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Truth? I decided to refer to Moby Dick just so I can use this gif.

What a Difference a Style Makes

Blindness is smelly, languid and apathetic. Rabies is violent, intense, and bloody. The destination of both is the same, but the paths they take are different. Rabies escalates, Blindness withers.

While it’s not hard to deduce what Blindness is about, I really didn’t get it while I was reading it. Having thought about it, I assume the point was to show:

  • The fragility of the human condition/society;
  • The ephemeral nature of what we see as humanity;
  • “Reality” is arbitrary (especially when faced with severe adversity);
  • The agility with which society turns out those who are different, afflicted, unwanted….

I just did not see it – I was too busy being irritated. I did not have any “there-she-blows” moments – it was all a struggle.

Rabies, with very similar allegorical tendencies, resonated with me with no problem whatsoever. Pekic has written a thriller, a clever crime story (with a hint of supernatural) with real people you come to hate/love and care about, a story which successfully led me to the white whale.

I’m going to quote myself here because I’m so cool:

Pekić is very ostentatious, very aware of his prowess and he’s putting it out there. It’s pretty much like this: “uuu look at me, I handle words the way you cannot handle oxygen, and I know it, and I want you to know it.” And I know it. And I loved it.


It’s Not That It’s Bad – I Just Hated It

Around 100  pages into Blindness, I had no empathy left and I didn’t give a fuck about the horrible reality the characters were subjected to. But it’s hard to tell whether that was a result of Saramago’s intention to show me I’m a part of that “humanity” (which is in essence inhumane) or was it the result of me hating the book.

There are more things I appreciated in Blindness, like Saramago’s ability to write about violence, blood and murder and still making it all seem lethargic and passive. Saramago is a magnificent writer. Blindness is not a lousy book; it’s just that I hated it.


What Now

Honestly? I don’t know. Having examined Blindness in more detail makes me think I was unfair in giving it a one-star rating. But I really hated it, I really did.

Should the aftermath matter? Or should the reading experience itself be the basis for a rating?

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Life as Fiction

I’ve always had immense respect for writers who were capable of putting themselves on paper.  A bit of disdain (and jealousy) always went with that, because you cannot bare yourself without baring others. But then again, most writers have to be selfish, self-righteous pricks to a certain degree, don’t they?

Beyond Fiction

I have read two such books recently, Crazy for Vincent by Herve Guibert and Intimacy by Hanif Kureishi. These books defy fiction and still you cannot read them as anything but. Pieces of people’s lives disguised as fiction strike me as something beyond fiction. How much of it is real? Is the fragmented, disconnected style a by-product of trying to hide as much as you reveal, or is it a conscious choice to enhance the realism of depicting human emotional life?

How much of it is a result of compulsion, and how much a choice of the author? Can we talk about plot, characterisation or structure? Can we rate a person’s life just because they decided to put it in a book?

250 Pages – a Million Questions

The two books total at a bit over 250 pages, yet they have left me with so many questions – about life and nature of literature, its purpose and function – both personal and civilizational. Is literature meant to entertain or educate? Even if an author decides on the purpose, is it even important – being so dependent on what the reader is bringing into the process?

Different or Not

Different yet eerily similar (and familiar!), both Crazy for Vincent and Intimacy show that most of us (if not all) are broken, in disrepairsearching for meaning, love or something like it.

The paper is not covered with ink it’s covered in scars – especially in Crazy for Vincent. Guibert is more self-aware. Unlike Kureishi, he is not self-aggrandizing (even when he’s trying to be contrite).  Guibert does not try to justify himself or his story, while I felt Kureishi had the need to prove that he is a “good man” by the same bourgeoisie standards he’s failing/refusing to meet.

The fact that I could see a reflection of myself in these stories complicates things further. More questions arise, because they have managed to elevate a deeply personal experience to a more universal level (at least in my case). We’re talking about male authors. One of them is obsessed with his young gay lover (simplification!), the other is trying to rationalize his decision to leave his wife and two sons. Not very relatable in my case, yet the emotional level, the raw material  is malleable.

Ethics of Fiction

I’ve read a review of Intimacy on Goodreads which made me pause and which is closely related to my intro. Does a writer have an obligation to protect those he includes (exploits) in the service of his writing? Should Kureishi have masked the autobiographical elements of Intimacy to protect his family and friends? All valid questions, but I consider them unimportant, because even if Kureishi “tweaked” his life in order to be nice (?), a book like this would have brought about the same questions as the “untweaked” version.

I believe that if you choose to be a (certain type of) writer and you actually succeed in becoming one, you have to be prepared to be judged and called “unethical” or “selfish and self-righteous “.

What would Wilde say?

I think genre is pure discrimination. Young Adult is the worst among them. Young people don’t want to read books for children (assuming they want to read at all). Old people cannot bother with a story about a teenager – they’ve got older fish to fry.

A good book is a good book.

I think the same thing applies to genre and to people who don’t like to read. It doesn’t mean you don’t like it – it means you just haven’t found a book that suits you. I disliked fantasy until I’ve read Earthsea, and it’s not like you can say you love cyberpunk just because you liked Neuromancer.

We use labels to navigate through the labyrinth of life, but often these labels stop us from taking a turn which could bring us joy and maybe even discovery.

Reader’s Dilemma

Miss Larkin’s writing is like a puppy’s first confrontation with a flight of stairs. It’s very awkward, but it’s so cute you have to smile and hope it will succeed. While the puppy eventually masters the stairs, Miss Larkin never fully masters writing. At least not in The Earl’s Dilemma.

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She keeps stumbling over the same words – lack of synonyms in her vocabulary and the lack of thesaurus in her home library become apparent very soon. I could not resist so I counted, cruel courtesy of modern technology. Using the word throat 52 times and the word cheek 92 times would not be a big problem if both words were not used in relation the same character almost invariably. The same goes for frown (101 times).

As much as I tried to like Artemis for subjective reasons, I tried to dislike Earl’s Dilemma for objective reasons. It is badly written. Really. And I loved it. I enjoyed the simple love story, even though it was riddled with detailed descriptions of drapery, upholstery, linen and other types of cloth. I liked the characters, even though they were all frowns, eyebrows, throat and cheek.

I doubt I will ever read another book by Miss Larkin, but I’ll be forever thankful for putting a smile on my face when I desperately needed it.

Have you ever really liked a book that was poorly written? This actually happened to me once before, more than 10 year ago when I read Man on Fire.

Wrinkles, Grimaces and Books

The kind of book I’m looking for is the One that’ll cause an involuntary upward movement of the corners of my mouth. The One that will force me to hold back a full-blown grin – mid-conversation, during a meeting or on some form of public transport. This book freezes my face in a grimace that makes me look deeply unsatisfied, maybe even a little constipated.

When I grow old(er) I hope the deepest and most visible lines on my face will be the ones which have already broken the skin just above the corner of my mouth.

Real Books, Friends and Benedict Cumberbatch

No birds were injured during the writing of this post.

My reading buddy criticised me for deciding to write a new-year post. Our debate is long and uninteresting to the uniformed, so I’ll just say she was right, given the circumstances of the conversation. My argument for writing this post is simple: new year resolution about which I will write will reflect on this blog.

I decided to read only “real” books during 2015 (real books being made out of paper). I’m quite reluctant to buy Cheap Thrills and Guilty Pleasures books (although I hope some of my purchases will end up as such), so I assume there’ll be less posts about erotic fiction. I could borrow such titles in my local library, but they know my name and address, so that’s not really an option for me.

Frankly, I want to kill two birds with one stone. Wait, three birds.

Bird 1: Read more “real” books;
Bird 2: Finally read some of those books I’ve already bought;
Bird 3: Read more substantial and edifying titles (and accompanying books).

I had a great start this year. Aforementioned reading buddy struggled through snow and winds to come stay at my place. We played cards, ate too much, bought real books and played a lot of Scrabble. We’ve also had a post-New-Year karaoke party which was a blast. Not to mention that on the first day of 2015 I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy Imitation Game. A truly excellent movie.

Is there a better way to start a new year with good friends, new books, a good movie and Benedict Cumberbatch? Methinks no.

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All in all, an awesome start to a, hopefully, awesome year.

What are the right fuckin’ books, Will?

Whatever blows your hair back.

Whether it’s a YA or a James Joyce novel, if it blows your hair back – it’s the right fuckin’ book. The question remains: what kind of a ruffle does the book create?

  1. The ruffle which comes about every time you open said book.
  2. Ruffle which continues even after you’ve closed the book.
  3. Lifelong ruffle.

sparklyedward I love all ruffles, but my favourite is the number two ruffle. I love when a book overtakes my life, when it makes me smile just because I’m currently reading it. The anticipation of reading has an effect of sun on Edward Cullen’s skin.

It’s hard to explain this temporary symbiosis between life and book. It is even harder to explain why it happens with some books, which are “objectively” not good, and not with masterpieces. The ruffle has nothing to do with plot, and it has everything to do with gut.

It’s the gut feeling that makes you act a little crazy. There’s no viable reason behind that insane grin you sport every time you think of that book. If someone asks you what in particular makes that book consume you, you cannot answer. It’s everything. It’s the general feel of the book. It’s just right for you. It’s beyond reason, which makes it so much better.

I often tried to capture this feeling, and I failed almost as often. I think the only review in which I managed to explain what I truly feel about a book is my review of The Song of Achilles. But it wasn’t such a big problem to do that because the book is amazing in every aspect. It’s harder to explain the reasons behind mildly obsessive behaviour in connection to Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series and Sylvia Day’s Renegade Angels. Sure, Jericho Barrons is an awesome character and his limited presence in the books is perfectly distributed. Yeah, female characters like Vashti make for a good book. But still, those reasons cannot really explain that gut feeling, the je ne sais pas quality of a good book ruffle.

I started with Good Will Hunting, so it is only appopriate to end with it to illustrate the general state of my mind when I’m having a book ruffle.

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Have you recently had a good book ruffle?

The Unbearable Lightness of Writing

Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.

Ursula Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

Ursula Le Guin seems not to suffer from the confines of language. The most peculiar scenes and sensations are transformed into words with such lightness that I come to doubt the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis in which I firmly and adamantly believe. Her style, infused with love of humanity, serves as a deterrent of her message. It takes a while to see past her writing and notice the warning which her words tenaciously weave. Perfect fluency, the logic behind chaos serve to catch you unaware. Some pages into the book you are suddenly struck, amid the beauty of her writing, with a sense of dread, of slow, yet inevitable, civilizational decay.

The contradiction which is present in her books is not awkward – it makes perfect sense. It makes me believe that she has answers which a lot of us are looking for because her books manage to reconcile the beauty and grandeur of the human race with our delectable penchant for wanton self-destruction. At the same time I am proud to be human and appalled by the historical failure of the race. She captures the dichotomy of our fates as individuals and as parts of the whole, which seems to lack cohesion and collective intelligence.

The combination of subtle alliteration bordering on verse, small quips and lapses of humour only enhance the sense of pending doom. Constructed worlds, distant but probable, serve as an eerie setting to showcase the failure of an entire race. A beautiful, complex failure. An amalgamation of magnificent and singular minds destined for self-destruction.

Three books later, Le Guin still makes me feel both happy and sad about being a human. And I am at peace with that fact. Even after I saw the dark future that awaits the human race, I do not feel bad because I also saw the beauty of the individual.

It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.

Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed

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I have read three books by Ursula Le Guin. All three will forever be a part of who I am, of what I feel it means to be human. I feel honoured to have had the privilege of reading these books and allowing them to influence me, both intellectually and emotionally. I’ve read The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and The Lathe of Heaven. You can read my review of the Dispossessed and my take on the characterization in The Lathe of Heaven on Goodreads.

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin is a part of the mighty MiniBookClub:

Cheap Thrills and Guilty Pleasures

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A large part of my life, be it Cheap Thrills, Guilty Pleasure or Personal Edification is all about books.

Cheap Thrills

Books “that everyone read” serve this purpose beautifully. If one of those books turns out decent, so be it. If it turns out to be utter crap it gives you something other than “real things” to bitch about. Fifty Shades of Grey and City of Bones are Cheap Thrills. I read them and then I get all self-righteous, putting them, momentarily, at the center of my life issues. I admit it. I do overreact. You will not get to read this admission twice.

To me books are extremely important, and a Cheap Thrill book can occupy a significant portion of my life. Cheap Thrills are a great deterrent to the real world – if there is such a thing. I’m referring to “real problems” as defined by the majority, to those things most of us feels compelled to do in order to fit into a society which, in itself, isn’t very real. Earn money, pay taxes, bills, not kill people and what not.

Guilty Pleasures (elsewhere: pure and unadulterated escapism)

Guilty Pleasure books are those I wouldn’t be caught dead reading in public. I never could understand why publishers insist on putting hideous, half-naked men on the covers of these books. As a marketing tool those covers are counterproductive. I don’t know. Maybe those covers act as an incentive to someone in the marketing department, but reading Hunger So Wild (good book) or To Tame a Highland Warrior is not something I would do. Call me conformist, obsessed with what strangers think about me – but I will not do that.

Which would you rather be caught reading in public?
Which would you rather be caught reading in public?

Now, what is the difference between To Tame a Highland Warrior and Fifty Shades of Grey? The difference is that upon mentioning the fact that I have read To Tame a Highland Warrior, I feel compelled to explain why I read it. I really really really want to tell you why I read not only one, but FOUR (lousy) books from the Highlander series. But I must persevere and be strong. Excuses are for pussies.

Now, aside from books there are of course TV shows, movies and other things that fall into these two categories. I wrote about shojo manga, one of my favourite ways to unwind. The reason why I put it under Guilty Pleasures and not Cheap Thrills is because enjoying something that is often trite and completely out of sync with my own world-view makes me feel guilty. However, being a part of a world with a limited number of things that can go wrong is something I cannot resist. I love the simplicity of it and if I manage to come to care about the characters, I revert back to a 10-year-old girl with only one interest – WILL THEY FINALLY GET TOGETHER? And there’s stupid grinning and giggling. I’m not talking about the characters in manga, I’m talking about the reversed 10-year old me.

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City of Bones is rubbing me the wrong way

My book buddy wrote about how City of Bones is rubbing her the wrong way. I also feel very wrongly rubbed by this appalling book.

My review will come. And it’s not going in the Nutshells category. Oh no.