This Blinding Absence of Light

Ben Jelloun, Tahar. This Blinding Absence of Light. Translated by Linda Coverdale. New York: New Press, 2002.

Reason read: This one was chosen a little off schedule. I needed something for the Portland Public Library 2018 Reading Challenge for the category of a book that has won an International Dublin Literary Award.

This book was a hard, hard , hard read. Based upon true events, it is the story of an inmate of the Tazmamart Prison. Aziz was a soldier who took part in a failed assassination attempt on King Hassan II of Morocco. Hassan ordered his political enemies to be held in an underground desert concentration camp where they were kept in 6 x 3′ cells devoid of light or proper ventilation. Aziz and twenty-one other prisoners locked away without proper food or sanitary conditions. Many men went insane or died from uncontrolled illnesses and starvation. After nearly two decades in captivity, only four survived their experience. Because Ben Jelloun takes Aziz’s experiences and fictionalizes it with a first person narrative the story becomes even more intimate and heartbreaking.
If you are ever wallowing in your own pathetic cesspool of pity, try barricading yourself in a darkened room with only a hole to piss and crap in, a ceiling less than five feet from the floor, no heat or air conditioning with only a bucket of water too filthy to drink and starchy food too filled with maggots to eat. Or, if you are short on time just read this book. Your little life can’t be as bad.
Here is the heart of the story, “The hardest, most unbearable silence was that of light” (p 51).

Lines that stopped me short (and there were a lot of them), “What does a man think when the blood of other men runs down his face?” (p 6), “I felt death making itself at home in his eyes” (p 12), “Strangely enough, becoming time’s slave had set him free” (p 29), “It was a question of chance: you tell yourself you have plenty of time, you save a few books for later…and forget to read them” (p 68), “That night I tried again to sleep on the bed. It was just too comfortable for me” (p 181).

Author fact: Ben Jelloun has also won the Prix Maghreb award in 1994.

Book trivia: This Blinding Absence of Light won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2004.

Nancy said: Pearl said This Blinding Absence of Light is “a difficult, soul-destroying read” (p 162). Interestingly enough, someone on Wikipedia said prisoners were not “actively” tortured. I find this really interesting. The decision to withhold light and food IS a form of active torture. True, these people were not tortured with acts resulting in pain but they faced starvation to the point of eminent death. I’m guessing the author of the Wiki page has never been hungry to the point of starvation; has never gone without light; has never experienced confining and unsanitary conditions for an extended period of time or faced the threat of scorpions stinging them in the dark. As Ben Jelloun said, “the entire body had to suffer, every part, without exception” (p 3).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “North African Notes: Morocco” (p 162).


Black Tents of Arabia

Raswan, Carl R. The Black Tents of Arabia: My Life Among the Bedouins. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1935.

Reason read: The movie, Lawrence of Arabia, was released in December of 1962.

Raswan spent more than twenty years with different Bedouin tribes of Arabia. He went along with them hunting, raiding, battling and surviving as they migrated across the unforgiving arid desert. He submersed himself in the Ruala tribe, learning their customs and traditions on an intimate level. This intimacy and his passion for Arabian horses helped him escape enemy clutches when they were ambushed more than once. How he managed to avoid certain death was beyond me.
Raswan’s language has the ability to take the reader on his adventurous journey. In Black Tents of Arabia he had a way of describing sights and sounds that brought his wild experiences to life. Here’s one of my favorites, “In our tumble-down car there were now no less that seven men: Ibrahim, Ali, two Bedouin rafiqs, two soldiers, and myself; also a gazelle, a greyhound, and two hens. We were packed like sardines: we had to hold on to anything that we could and change grips when the hand threatened to go to sleep. But with thirteen arms interlaced (Ibrahim’s free arm controlled the steering-wheel) we prevented the car from falling apart, nor could any passenger fall out without the knowledge of the others” (p 122).

Quote I needed to quote: Here’s an example of romance in the desert. Faris says to his love, “The blade of my dagger reminds me that I shall never be at peace until the slender blossom bends before the storm of my love” (p 61).

Author fact: Raswan took all of the photographs featured in Black Tents of Arabia.

Book trivia: There are a generous number of photographs in Black Tents of Arabia. I counted over 65 photographs and they are remarkable.

Nancy said: Pearl said Black Tents of Arabia is “a hymn of joy and affection for the nomadic life” (p 25).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called Arabia Deserta” (p 23).


Cry of the Kalahari

Owens, Mark and Delia. Cry of the Kalahari: Seven Years in Africa’s Last Great Wilderness. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Press, 1984.

Reason read: Mark and Delia Owens were married in the month of December. Read this in honor of their anniversary.

In 1974 Mark and Delia headed to Africa to start a research project just one year after their wedding day. Cry of the Kalahari is the story of their seven years in the Kalahari Desert. Taking turns, they share their experiences living with brown hyenas, lion prides, and unpredictable jackals, among many other animals. Because most of the animals have never seen humans before they are neither threatened or antagonized by Mark and Delia’s presence. At face value, Cry of the Kalahari is romantic and idealistic.

Admittedly, I have a few issues with Cry of the Kalahari, beginning with the trivial. One, how many times they mentioned the temperatures being 120 degrees in the shade. You are in the Kalahari desert! What did you expect?
Two, their so-called research. They went to Kalahari not really sure what they wanted to work on. When they discovered there was little known about the brown hyena they set about to learn all they could about the species, then they added jackals, and yet after Bones, a male lion, was murdered by hunters they changed their focus to protecting all wildlife of the Kalahari. By the end of the book their focus had widened to include wildebeest. How they received funding for such vague and vast research is beyond me. However, the couple is quick to point out Cry of the Kalahari is not detailed report of their research. That will show up elsewhere they promised.
My third issue is probably the most personal. They claimed over and over they didn’t want to interfere with the wildlife because it would change the validity of their research. They cried as animals starved to death outside their food-laden tent. Yet they had no problem performing a makeshift surgery on Bones, a lion who had broken his leg, or smearing motor oil on Blue, another lion who suffered from parasites. Most likely both of these animals would have died without human intervention. Essentially, the Owenes actions disrupted the circle of life in the Kalahari.

As an aside, the description of the cheetah hitting the wire fence at 70 miles an hour is heart breaking.

Author(s) fact(s): The Owenses are no strangers to the media spotlight. They have been on numerous talk shows. 

Book trivia: there is a generous selection of color photographs in Cry of the Kalahari, along with a smaller section of black and whites.

Nancy said: Pearl was actually talking about another book written by the Owenses when she mentioned Cry. Interestingly enough, in relation to Cry Pearl said Mark and Delia were “expelled from Botswana” because of this book (Book Lust To Go p 267).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Zambia” (p 266). Confessional: I deleted Cry Of the Kalahari from the true list of books I needed to read for the Challenge because Cry does not take place in Zambia.


Martin Dressler

Millhauser, Steven. Martin Dressler. New York: Random House, 1996.

Reason read: November is a fascinating time to be in New York City.

Martin Dressler, the ambitious son of a cigar maker, has big dreams even as a young child. He starts by delivering cigars for his father and finds an ingenious  way to make profits soar. As a teenager, he starts his career employed as a young hotel bellhop. He catches the eye of the hotel owner and soon becomes his secretary and mentor. As a young man he falls under the spell of a mother and her two grown daughters while building hotels of his own. One daughter becomes his business partner when he delves into opening a chain of diners while the other daughter, Caroline, mystifies him with her silent, elusive personality. She reminds him of a girl he used to know…Strangely enough, he ends up marrying this shadowy, ghostly woman.
This is not a coming of age story. Readers watch as Martin goes through childhood and teenage years to adulthood without exposing friendships; it’s as if he doesn’t have any, puberty, or any other angst-y growing up tribulation. His personality is firmly grounded in business. There is a moment when Martin decides it is time for him to lose his virginity and almost without ceremony or fanfare, he visits a brothel. This becomes a matter of fact, once a week habit he continues into adulthood. Not much is made of sex either way. However, his wedding night is particularly uncomfortable.

What is especially fun to watch is late nineteenth century New York City growing up along side Martin. The street names change over the years. Buildings grow taller. Oil lamps are crowded out by electricity one by one. The Manhattan we know today competes with Martin’s metropolis of his dreams until they are both so large there isn’t room enough for the both of them. But, which New York lives on?

Quotes I found interesting, “She looked like a new painting, all wet and shiny, but already she was fading into the darkness between lamps” (p 138) and “Here in the other world, here in the world beyond the world, anything was possible” (p 292).

Author fact: at the time of publication, Millhauser taught at Skidmore College.

Book trivia: Martin Dressler won a Pulitzer Prize.

Nancy said: Pearl didn’t say anything specific about Martin Dressler in Book Lust, but in Book Lust To Go she hinted the book takes place in New York, but it’s not the Manhattan we know (Book Lust To Go p 236).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust from the chapter called “New York, New York” (p 170). Also from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Travel To Imaginary Places” (p 236).


Caliph’s House

Shah, Tahir. The Caliph’s House: a Year in Casablanca. New York: Bantam Dell Books, 2006.

Reason read: Morocco’s independence was obtained in November.

Everyone has a story of an event in their lives; how they met their sparkling spouse, how they came into their fascinating occupation, how they started an odd hobby for which they are extremely passionate. The most interesting stories are the ones that are life changing; an abrupt 180 degree turn from where they used to be. A hobby turning into a business so they can quit their dead end job, for example. Tahir Shah has such a story in The Caliph’s House. The London based travel writer was looking to move to Morocco. Tired of grey weather and bland food, he wanted to get back to the culture of his ancestry. After many false starts a classmate of his mother’s contacted him out of the blue in 2004 with an offer he couldn’t refuse: the sale of Dar Khalifa, the once home of a Caliph, a spiritual leader of Casablanca. Even though this is a story about living through a house renovation it goes beyond tiles and plumbing. Shah explores what it means to buy and restore a house in a post 911 society. Morocco struggles to be a paradise of tolerance. At the same time, Shah becomes intimately and intensely aware of “how things get done” when he hires a man of ill repute to be his right hand man. Encounters with thieves, possible murderers, even the mob are the norm. But, it is the exorcism that readers all wait for with breath held. Who in their right mind would slaughter a goat in every room of a mansion-sized abode?

Most startling takeaway – even Casablanca has a mafia.

Quote to quote, “There was a sadness in the still of the dusk” (p 1). Yes! I have always felt the melancholy amid the gloaming, especially on Monhegan. I can’t explain it.
Some funny quotes, “We were both blinkered by our upbringings” (p 105), “The nervous man pulled the lid off one of the toilets and fishes out half a dozen samples of cedar” (p 294), “But it was the first time I had hired a troupe of exorcists, and I didn’t know the protocol” (p 314), and “I like my meat to be anonymous, severed from its connection to life” (p 318). Don’t we all?

Author fact: Shah has a few videos on YouTube, including one of a tour of Dar Khalifa that is pretty cool. He talks about having to placate the Jinns and how he ended up having a grand exorcism with twenty-four exorcists.

Book trivia: the illustrations by Laura Hartman Maestro are wonderful, but what is most impressive is the assumed photograph of Dar Khalifa.

Nancy said: Pearl just describes a tiny bit of the plot.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “So We/I Bought or Built a House In…” (p 210).


Playing For Pizza

Grisham, John. Playing for Pizza. New York: Bantam Dell, 2007.

Reason read: the Verdi Fest in Parma is traditionally held in October.

When we first meet Rick Dockery he is laid up in a hospital bed after a nasty American Football Conference championship game collision. After this latest concussion third string quarterback Dockery’s career is more than over. His agent, Arnie, is told over and over no one will touch him with a ten foot pole. Don’t even ask. Like many athletes with a less than stellar career, but the passion to play, Dockery heads to another country to continue playing the game he loves so much. He arrives in Italy with the stereotypical chip on his shoulder. Where are the cheerleaders? In his mind, it’s only a matter of time before he’ll be back in the States, playing for the NFL…or so he dreams. What follows is Dockery’s slow acceptance of Italy, his education of what Europeans consider football, and (gulp) what true loyalty means. Grisham keeps the plot light and uncomplicated for a quick and easy read.

Confession: when Dockery gets tangled up in a budding romance with a woman already involved in a seven year relationship I thought I would see more drama. Not so. I think that plot line was designed to introduce opera and not much else.

As an aside, Grisham’s descriptions Italy made me want to plan a visit. I made a list of every region and landmark he mentioned.

Funny quote, “Later he learned that Sly and Trey had been driven away by a drunk uncle who couldn’t find Parma” (p 101).

Author fact: Grisham makes a huge departure from his legal mysteries with Playing for Pizza but he didn’t go into it blind. Parma really does have a football team with a few American players.

Book trivia: Playing for Pizza is short enough to read in a weekend.

Nancy said: Nancy called Playing for Pizza “captivating” and described the plot a little.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter simply called “Parma” (p 172).


African Laughter

Lessing, Doris. African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe.New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

Reason read: to celebrate Lessing’s birth month in October.

Even though Doris Lessing was born to British parents in Iran and didn’t move to Southern Rhodesia until she was six, Lessing called the African continent her homeland. She spent twenty-four years there until she moved to London, England. African Laughter is a very personal memoir about four trips back to Zimbabwe after being exiled for twenty-five years.
Interestingly enough, the title African Laughter comes from Lessing’s joy of hearing Africans laugh. “The marvelous African laughter born somewhere in the gut, seizing the whole body with good-humoured philosophy” (p 80).

Confessional: there were times when I got lost in Lessing’s chronology. An example: Lessing is visiting her brother and describing a scene languishing on the verandah. Her brother’s two Alsatians (popular dogs as pets in Africa) are lounging nearby. One dog in particular, Sheba, hungers for Lessing’s female attentions. Lessing then seamlessly goes on to describe how Sheba finally attached herself to her male owner only to be strangled to death in some loose wire at the end of a fence. Because she doesn’t reference two periods in time I wasn’t sure when this happened. Subsequent mentions of poor Sheba are depressing, knowing her sad demise.

Lines I liked, “All writers know the state of trying to remember what actually happened, rather than what was invented, or half invented, a meld of truth and fiction” (p 72) and “With a library and perhaps some sympathetic adult to advise them, there in nothing in the world they cannot study” ( p 206).

Author fact: Lessing was born in Iran in 1919.

Book trivia: African Laughter has some great insight into other books Lessing has written, like The Golden Notebook.

Nancy said: Nancy mentioned African Laughter as one of the books she found “engrossing” after she had written the “Dreaming of Africa” section in Book Lust.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Zipping Through Zimbabwe/Roaming Rhodesia” (p 268).