May 21, 2008

Chez Stan, Blind But Not Hungry

men's book club group discussion review of Blindness Jose Saramago

Stan’s baronial residence could not have contrasted more sharply with the rapid physical decay depicted in Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Had we a stronger sense of justice last night, we would have given our beef tri tip and roasted new potatoes to the cyclone victims in Myanmar. Instead, we tucked in, helped ourselves to ice cream, and promised to support Garth’s upcoming Burmese fashion show fundraiser. (Although his daughter may be worried about his preference for fem couture, we know Garth’s intentions are honorable.)

Stan, thanks for feeding the 14 of us as we sorted through the pain and triumph of Blindness. However, your insistence that we complete our roundtable discussion with our eyes closed may have overly stimulated certain other senses. When I opened my eyes, my plate was empty. The obvious suspect was the man seated to my left, who arrived with a see-through gauze blindfold and a tendency to thievery. If I had one of Garth’s stiletto heels, I might have planted it in John's thigh.

The Book
Although Saramago’s plot is compelling (an epidemic strikes a city, renders its inhabitants blind, and creates a profound loss of social order), several in the group complained that the book was slow going. The absence of conventional punctuation, the elliptical dialogue, and the intentional omission of character names made the act of reading more challenging.

While Roy criticized the writing as “mechanical” and Doug was surprised at his own lack of progress, Jack praised the book as an excellent sleeping aid. (I noted, with obvious insight, that the removal of punctuation was a conscious attempt by Saramago to eliminate visual cues for his readers. But I was quickly informed that all of his books are written this way. That ended my insight for the evening.)

Most of us, however, got used to the narrative style and were absorbed by the story and its parallels to the Holocaust and any number of other fascist and authoritarian-inspired tragedies of the last century. Armando and Glenn both read this novel in overtly political terms, with Glenn (or was it Armando?) discovering a cautionary tale perfect for the current election cycle. Glenn’s disclosure that Saramago is an atheist with a pessimistic view of mankind came as no surprise, particularly given the jarring revelation during the novel's scene in the church. Doug, who admitted his bias against political fiction, was intrigued by the plot but underwhelmed by Saramago’s delivery.

The interesting result of our discussion was how highly we rated this book despite a few strong dissents (Roy felt generous giving it a 3!). Even with conservative numbers from Dean, Jack, and Doug, the book drew more 9's and 10's than any book to date. Stan, Terry, Glenn, and Larry all ranked it as their book of the year. With an 8.3 rating, Blindness has overtaken The Great Gatsby and Tortilla Curtain. Beyond its high rating, Blindness also seemed to provoke more topical discussion than any other book on our list.

Next Up
For next month, Jack asked us to consider The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner, as well as McGuane’s The Bushwhacked Piano and O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The virtue of each choice, as we enter the summer season, is its brevity. So, in gratitude, we agreed to take up Stegner’s 1976 National Book Award winner. For the ambitious engineers in our group, extra credit will be awarded if you also read Angle of Repose and come prepared to explain the title.

May 18, 2008

Jack's Book Suggestions

I've got three recommended choices for June reading. Since we're heading into the busy summer season, I've chosen 3 relatively short books, all in the 200+/- page range (you're welcome in advance). These could be easily read on the beach. My first choice, and the one I hope the group will choose, is The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner. It won the National Book Award. Stegner is one of my favorite authors. Angle of Repose is one of my all time favorites, but it exceeds the 500 page limit. I read Spectator Bird about 20 years ago and would look forward to re-reading. My other choices are: The Bushwhacked Piano by Thomas McGuane (winner of the Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Foundation Award), a light-hearted, sad/funny book that is fun to read. Finally, my other suggestion is The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, a trove of Vietnam war related accounts (fictional) on a handful of veterans that are very powerful. Amazon has info on all of these. See you Tuesday.