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).


December Didn’t Disappoint

I may not be happy with my personal life in regards to fitness, health, and so on, but I am definitely satisfied with the number of books I was able to check off my Challenge list for the month of December. Special thanks to my kisa who did all the driving up and back and around the great state of Maine.

Fiction:

  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (EB/print).
  • Any Old Iron by Anthony Burgess.
  • Four Spirits by Sena Jeter Naslund.
  • This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun.
  • Time Machines: the Best Time Travel Stories Ever Written edited by Bill Adler, Jr.

Nonfiction:

  • The Black Tents of Arabia: (My Life Among the Bedouins by Carl Raswan.
  • Lost Moon: the Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger.
  • The Female Eunuch by Germain Greer.
  • Stet: a Memoir by Diana Athill (EB and print).
  • Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens (EB and print).

Series continuations:

  • Unicorn Hunt by Dorothy Dunnett. Confessional: I did not finish this.
  • The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (EB/print/AB).

Into Thin Air

Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster. New York: Anchor Books, 1997.

Reason read: the Mount Everest disaster occurred on May 10th 1996.

Jon Krakauer was given an assignment by Outside Magazine to join a climbing expedition ultimately going to the top of Mount Everest. Being an avid mountaineer he thrilled at the chance to join a professional team to reach the highest summit in the world. What he didn’t anticipate was being witness to one of the worst Everest disasters in the mountain’s history.
As Karakuer takes us to higher elevations he not only gives the reader a play by play of the events unfolding at each camp, he also details the physical and psychological effects wreaking havoc on the climbers, adventurer and Sherpa alike. It’s a grueling quest and Krakauer never lets you forget the danger.
It has been said that the mountaineering community is unique unto themselves. Never before was this more apparent than when Kraukauer described climbers so hellbent on reaching the top that they would push on past half dead individuals lying in the snow, slowly freezing to death. Or step casually over the legs of a half buried dead man…
Despite the dangers of climbing such high elevations, the challenge continues to draw thousands to Everest. It is an industry unto itself, making millions for guides, the sports corporations looking to sponsor them, and the Sherpas looking to lead the way.

I devoured this book. I found it was very easy to lose track of time and read 70-80 pages in one sitting.

Quotes I liked, “I thrilled in the fresh perspective that came from tipping the ordinary plane of existence on end” (p 23) and “Problem was, my inner voice resembled Chicken Little; it was screaming that I was about to die, but it did that almost every time I laced up my climbing boots” (p 101).

Author fact: I think Krakauer is best known for Into the Wild, but I am reading two others, Iceland and Where Men Win Glory.

Book trivia: There are the obligatory black and white photographs of the victims and a few of the mountain. Unlike a book a read recently where every photo was of the author, Jon Krakauer isn’t in a single one.

Nancy said: Krakauer’s book “sets the standard for personal adventure books” (p 8).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Adventure By the Book: Nonfiction” (p 8).


May Has Her Reasons

This is the first month since September that I don’t have some kind of race looming. It feels weird to not worry about the run. I guess I can concentrate on the books:

Fiction:

  • Landfall: a Channel Story by Nevil Shute – in honor of the month the movie was released.
  • Main Street by Sinclair Lewis – in honor of Minnesota becoming a state in May (AB).
  • Bruised Hibiscus by Elizabeth Nunez – on honor of the Pan Ramjay festival held in May.
  • Adrian Mole: the Cappuccino Years by Sue Townsend – in honor of Mother’s Day.

Nonfiction:

  • Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer – in honor of the failed Mount Everest climb in May 1994.

Series continuations:

  • Jade Island by Elizabeth Lowell – to continue the series started in April in honor of Lowell’s birth month.
  • Warding of Witch World by Andre Norton – to continue the series started in March to honor the month of Norton’s passing.

Something new! I just discovered archive dot org! They are brilliant! I have been able to find a bunch of the books I have on my Challenge list, including two for this month. That means I will be able to leave the print at home and still read on my lunch break!


Fay

Brown, Larry. Fay. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2000.

Reason reading: December is Southern Literature Month. Fay takes place in Mississippi.

You can’t help but fall in love with Fay…in the beginning. Despite being abused by animals and humans alike beautiful seventeen year old Fay Jones holds out hope she can be friends with either of them. Preferably both at some point in her young life. But for now she is eager to find Biloxi after running away from a potentially dangerous and definitely drunk father. With only the clothes on her back and two dollars hidden in her bra, she is uneducated and generous; thoughtful in a complicated and naive way. She’ll trust anyone who can steer her in the right direction. You’ll find yourself holding your breath as she hitches a ride with three drunk boys back to their trailer deep in the woods. You again become breathless when a cop picks her up and takes her home. Fay’s ignorance makes people want to help her and hurt her all at the same time. I must admit, over time Fay’s willingness (eagerness?) to fall in with some really bad people grew wearisome. She’s either intensely shallow or so stupid she can’t help herself. She doesn’t recognize when someone is taking advantage of her. When she goes from being a blushing virgin to an easy lay in one week’s time I felt myself losing interest in her fate and willing the character I did care about to stay away from her.
Because Brown will make you care about some people. Even Fay.

My biggest pet peeve? Brown is almost too coy, too cute and dare I say, cheesy? about creating reader suspense at times. His first mention of Alesandra elicited an eye roll from me. One inappropriate remark that spoke volumes in a sea of other details and then nothing for pages and pages. It’s the proverbial gun on a table. Sooner or later it has to go off.

The only line I liked, “Then he was standing there with his neatly pressed gray trousers, a blue stripe down each leg, a gun on his hip and a crisp shirt, his nameplate and his shiny brass and all the authority she feared” (p 34).

Author fact: Brown also wrote Joe and Dirty Work. I’m reading both. Here is the crazy thing. For the first time I have started tracking the approximate time certain books will come up on the schedule. According to the master calendar I will be reading Joe in December of 2037 and Dirty Work in October of 2040.

Book trivia: This should be a movie. It has everything. Sex, drugs and rock and roll. Strippers, prostitutes and drug dealers. Explosions and violence. And don’t forget beautiful scenery of the Mississippi gulf coast.

Nancy said: Nancy said “any list of grit-lit practitioners worth its whiskey would also include Larry Brown” (p 106). She also said Fay drifts through life “serenely” and “almost untouched” by the violence around her. I don’t know if I would agree. Fay’s traumas haunt her constantly. I would see her more as resilient; trying to push on despite the abuses. She has a steely determination to survive.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the very appropriate chapter called “Grit Lit” (p 106).


August ’10 was…

August. The last gasp of summer before everyone starts thinking about back-to-school clothes, back-to-school school supplies and back-to-school attitudes. I know my college has already adopted the attitude now that the athletes and international students have started arriving on campus. August was quiet compared to July’s crazy traveling. But, for books it was:

  • The All-Girl Football Team by Lewis Nordan ~ Nordan is my emotional train wreck.
  • Zarafa: a Giraffes’s True Story, from Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris by Michael Allin ~ in honor of Napoleon’s birth month even though Napoleon is a teeny part of the story
  • Zel by Donna Jo Napoli ~ the clever, psychological retelling of Rapunzel.
  • The Meaning of Everything: the Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester ~ in honor of National Language Month, but I didn’t finish it. Not even close.
  • Undaunted Courage by Simon Winchester ~ a really interesting account of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
  • A Separate Peace by John Knowles ~ probably one of my all-time favorite books.

For LibraryThing and the Early Review Program: I started reading Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann. Review coming in September.

For fun I read:

  • fit = female: the perfect fitness and nutrition game plan for your unique body type by geralyn b. coopersmith ~ the cover of the book didn’t use capital letters so neither did i.
  • Nutrition for Life: The no-fad, no-nonsense approach to eating well and researching your healthy weight by Lisa Hark, Phd, RD & Darwin Deen, MD ~ this is a really, really informative book.

The Book of Calamities

Trachtenberg, Peter. The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning. New York: Little, Brown & co., 2008

This was an off-list addition. Glutton for punishment? Maybe. April had already been a hard month and here I am, deciding to add to the drama by deciding to read a book about suffering. It’s perverse but I find comfort in my little, uneventful life when I am reminded of fates worse than mine…much, much worse than mine. It’s the same reason why I watch ugly shows about murder and drug addiction. It’s my constant reminder that anyone, at anytime, can fall from grace. And fall hard.

But, anyway, back to Calamities. I will be honest. I picked up the book after reading a dedication. After researching the recipients I realized I needed to know more. It wasn’t enough to be aware and move on. I wanted knowledge. Who were these people and why did they die? Notice I didn’t say how? That much was obvious. Their tragedy deserved more than two seconds of my time. Which led me to Peter Trachtenberg’s book.

The Book of Calamities covers man-induced sufferings as well as the ones seemingly without explanation. The answer to each catastrophe lies in simple words like religion, nature, sanity, hatred, illness but try explaining those words beyond dictionary etymology and terminology. What exactly IS hatred? What drives two religions to war? How can Mother Nature be so cruel to the ignorant? Who defines mental illness and calls it insanity? These are hard questions but, Trachtenberg asks an even bigger question – why is suffering such a shock to us? It happens all the time. It happens everywhere. Why aren’t we more prepared for catastrophe? Is it a cultural thing? For some reason we, as a society,  have this sense of entitlement to happiness; this sense of denial that bad things always happen to someone, anyone, else but us. Not so.

I didn’t have favorite quotes in this book, but there was one particular event that stood out. Here is the quote: “The first thing they did for me was to make me stop, kindly, with care not to make me feel any more foolish than I already felt, for who feels more foolish than a failed suicide?” (p 95). The reason why this passage stood out to me is this – in my friend’s suicide note he made reference to being embarrassed by possible failure. He understood suffering and didn’t want to make compromises to accommodate that suffering. Here’s the thing – he didn’t need to be embarrassed. He didn’t fail on May 10th, 1993.