April 2006 Archives

Book Review: "Blindness"
April 30, 2006 4:27 PM | Posted in:

I started reading José Saramago's Blindness around 9:00 p.m. on Friday and finished it about an hour ago (it's Sunday, about 3:30 p.m.). 326 pages in less than 48 hours. That's not exactly a speed-reading record, but it should be taken as an indication of the mesmerizing quality of this novel about what happens when an epidemic of blindness sweeps through the population of an unidentified nation.

This book was published eleven years ago and there's nothing I can add to the discussion about its message. Neither do I wish to reveal any additional details of the plot. All I want to do is share my reaction to the novel, since others have expressed an interest.

The author acts as an omniscient narrator, an observer and occasional interpreter of the events that unfold through the progression of the "disease" (if that's what it is). The writing style is almost stream of consciousness, but I found it not difficult at all to comprehend. (I did wonder how much, if any, of this style came from the fact that the novel was translated from Portuguese. There's a rather poignant publisher's footnote at the end informing the reader that the original translator died before completing the work, which was taken over by another person.) But the words and construction are just the delivery mechanism for a story with details that are by turns, incredibly disturbing and touching. Those details are so vividly described, so realistic, so brutal, that one might feel transported into the story...and that's often not a comfortable place to be.

One Gazette reader wanted to know if Blindness would cause nightmares, and my answer is that if one is prone to taking what they read into their subconscious then, yes, this is the stuff that nightmares are made of. But it would be unfair to leave it at that, because the diligent reader will find eventually find some redemption in the story.

Saramago is a Communist and an atheist, and I find some of his political views repugnant; his view of the world and humanity are colored by a lens that is very different from mine. But he has created a undeniably powerful novel, one that consumed my weekend, and I don't regret the investment of time.

Next up, Saramago's follow-up novel published this year: Seeing. I think I'll wait a few days, though...maybe just enjoy looking at things for a while.

An Amazing Three Hour Tour
April 7, 2006 11:14 AM | Posted in:

One of the pleasant surprises of blogging is when someone stumbles onto an old post and it strikes a chord with them...and they share with you about it. 

That was the case this morning when I opened an email that fell into my "Possible Junk Mail" folder (because the sender isn't in my address book). Here's the gist of it:
Hello. Well, I just stumbled across this while looking for some ideas for other tunes for Amazing Grace. hmm... looks like some pretty old postings here in your little forum but if you're interested: I had a friend a while back (say mid 90's) who would often play Amazing Grace to the tune of the Gilligan's Island theme song. You know the "Three hour tour" song. Anyway, enjoy.
This was a new one for me...Amazing Grace set to the theme music for Gilligan's Island. But it took only a few seconds of humming the tune and then adding the words to see how it fits...and very well, too. At first glance, the tune is perhaps a bit too, um, lively (irreverent? trivial?) for such powerful words, but the change in key -- if that's what it is; I need a real musician to help me out here -- of the last phrase sort of adds some solemnity. And, in the end, Amazing Grace is a quite happy and triumphant song. 

Works for me. But now, the question of the day is whether you've run across any other tunes for Amazing Grace. We've already got House of the Rising Sun, The Eagles' Peaceful Easy Feeling, and now Gilligan's Island. Surely there are others... 

If it helps, the meter of Amazing Grace is - Common Meter, according to The Baptist Hymnal. Granted, I don't know from "25 or 6 to 4," but perhaps you do.

If you've ever lived in a small town or attended a small school or worked in a small office, you're surely familiar with the gossiping, the flirtations, the unnoticed revolutions, the amateurish intrigues, the idle speculation, the short tempers, and the occasional tender mercies that are woven through the daily fabric of those experiences. These things are probably universal -- the plot elements never change, just the cast of characters.

Peter Orner thinks that the only truly exotic place would be one that's completely uninhabited by people. And thus it is that while the first novel by this award-winning author is set in the unlikely location of the Namibian veld, in south Africa, the faculty and students in the Catholic school that provides the main backdrop for the story will be as familiar to most readers as the backs of their hands.

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo is set in the early 90s, not long after Namibia won its independence from South Africa. There's a small all-boys Catholic school located in Goas, which the reader will come to view as dry and dreary and hopeless as place as any ever portrayed in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. Into this barren backwater (sans the water) comes Larry Kaplanski, a young Jewish teacher from Cincinnati who has volunteered in a sort of Peace Corps-evoking mission to help educate young Namibians.

Second Coming is a stream-of-consciousness account of Kaplansk's (the others inexplicably decide his name doesn't warrant the final "i") time at the school. Despite what the book jacket says, he is the main character and most frequent narrator, although others occasionally take over the story-telling. Mavala Shikongo is a young and unmarried female teacher - a veteran of the bloody war for independence - who reappears, with young child in tow, at Goas after an unexplained absence, and after Kaplanski's arrival. As the only "eligible" female for miles around, she attracts the attention of all the men at Goas, including the married ones. Kaplanski is the only one to succeed in getting close to her, but with puzzling results.

I recently posted something about "blooks," books derived from blogs. Second Coming might be the inverse: a blog in book form. Orner has chosen an unusual format for his story. The book, which is about 300 pages in length, contains 153 chapters. Some chapters are but a few sentences in length, and none are more than a few pages. They're more like blog posts than literary chapters, and a given chapter doesn't necessarily build on or relate to those immediately surrounding it.

Still, Orner succeeds in painting a complete picture of life in a place that most of us cannot imagine and will likely never visit. The authenticity comes honestly; Orner himself worked as a teacher in Namibia. His descriptions of life in the drought-stricken veld will ring true to any desert dweller, and his insertion of various facets of Namibian history will be enlightening without becoming pedagogical. And his characters are uniformly complex and imaginative.

In the final anaysis, however, Second Coming may not be entirely satisfying, leaving the reader to fill in some significant gaps (the actual ending comes ten years after the rest of the book) in the lives of the main characters. Depending on one's tolerance for ambiguity, or willingness to partner with the author in finishing the story, this could be either a strength or a weakness of the book.


This review is based on an Advance Reading Copy provided to me by the Time Warner Book Group. The book is scheduled for publication on April 24, 2006.

Peter Orner says that he writes by hand, the old-fashioned way, in similar fashion to another best-selling author. [Thanks to Jim for the serendipitous link.]

Second Coming contains passages with explicit and implied sexual content; this is not a novel for youngsters.

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