Five of My Favorite Narrative Settings


Readers know the importance of compelling settings in novels – we hope writers do too. Some people would claim that character and plot are king. However, it’s not unusual for readers to first recall a certain region, a piece of geography, a neighborhood or city depicted in a novel when they think of it. While these settings may be the context for the whole story, sometimes, they are the backdrop against which only a number of important or climatic scenes develop.

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The Cliffs of Insanity – From The Princess Bride

Well-written settings create atmosphere; they may drive the plot, and even become as important as a main character. Often, readers are so enraptured by book settings (although the story will most certainly take place in a different time or era), they will wish to visit some of them. Yours truly, for example, is a stickler for visiting places depicted in books – or in their movie adaptations for that matter – when my travels take me anywhere near them.

In this post I’m sharing with the reader some of my favorite settings in novels. Please let me know how you feel about them. Also, if you wish, list and describe your favorite settings in the comments section below.

51Js6G5I9PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Curious incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. The London Underground.

After seeing the London Tube through the eyes of the highly functioning – yet socially inadequate – autistic 15-year-old Christopher Boone, the charismatic narrator of this stunning novel, readers will agree the Underground is the perfect metaphor for the lair of imaginary or real monsters we all need to fight and overcome in the course of our lives. The Tube, with its vibrant atmosphere, train noises, buskers and the multitudes of daily travelers rushing down its corridors. can certainly be an overwhelming experience for someone like Chris, or readers who are not entirely comfortable with crowds and frenzy.


518A0CQ6VVLWuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte.
Yorkshire.

This region of northern England, swept by winds and storms, as depicted by Emily Bronte, is the ultimate expression of a romantic and dramatic landscape: wild, visceral, and passionate. This remarkable setting, of course, matches the personalities of the novel’s unforgettable characters, Cathy and Heathcliff, who roam the region’s bleak moors – alive and dead! The historic county of Yorkshire is, by the way, the largest and one of the greenest in the UK. 

 

2666The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe. New York City.

Wall Street, Park Avenue and the Bronx are forever linked in many readers’ minds to the fate of naïve bond trader Sherman McCoy, one of the masters of the universe – in his own egocentric and distorted self-assessment. At a key plot point, Sherman misses the exit into Manhattan on his way back from Kennedy Airport, where he drove to pick up his mistress Maria. The journey ends up in a nightmare, when the couple gets involved in a hit-and-run accident, killing a black young man in the Bronx. Sherman, the superrich yuppie, becomes the perfect target: he will be used as a scapegoat and brought down by the petty political interests of the various ethnical and professional lobbying groups of 1980s New York.

9780544173767_p0_v2_s1200x630The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. The Cliffs of Insanity.

The first image that crosses my mind whenever I hear someone mention The Princess Bride are the Cliffs of Insanity (gosh, do I love this silly name!). Although this is a fictitious setting, the movie version – which was the first contact most of us had with this incredibly entertaining post-modern fairy tale – uses the real breathtaking Cliffs of Moher, in County Clare, Ireland, as the location. Facing the Atlantic, those rugged imposing cliffs are among Ireland’s most spectacular natural sights.

 

41hqc685dlL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Detroit, Michigan. USA.

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974”. This is one of the most intriguing opening lines in contemporary fiction. Middlesex is not only a powerful and moving journey into human sexuality, gender issues and identity, but also the three-generation saga of a Greek-American family, the Stephanides, migrating from a small village overlooking Mount Olympus all the way to Detroit, Muchigan – an improbable destination, where readers experience the story of the city from the Prohibition days, moving through its glorious days as the Motor City, and witnessing the race riots at the end of the 1960s – and beyond. An American epic.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On reading – from Roald Dahl’s Matilda


“Mr Hemingway says a lot of things I don’t understand, Matilda said to her. ‘Especially about men and women. But I loved it all the same. The way he tells it I feel I am right there on the spot watching it all happen.’ ‘A fine writer will always make you feel that,’ Mrs Phelps said . ‘And don’t worry about the bits you can’t understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.”

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For Those Who Enjoyed Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why


The popular Netflix series about teenage angst and issues – including bullying, sexual  orientation problems, drug use and suicide – has prompted many fans to look for similar material in literature. Of course, the series itself was based on the bestselling young-adult novel by Jay Asher, which came out in 2007. Therefore you might as well start there.

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I would also recommend the following novels, which, in addition to the similarity and relevance of the issues discussed, are – just like the series – carefully crafted, brimming with colorful characters, mystery and suspense.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

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(Originally published in 1993). Aimed at adults. Issues covered: suicide; teenage inadequacy; family problems.

This option is ideal for readers who are looking for more sophisticated and literary material on similar topics. This debut novel by Jeffrey Eugenides is certainly one the darkest (and funniest) I have ever read. The five oversheltered Lisbon sisters were difficult to differentiate: all blond, good-looking and reserved. Ranging from 13 to 17 in age, they were an eternal source of mystery and attraction to the young male kids of the neighborhood of this quiet Detroit suburb – these same boys, decades later, will narrate the sinister events which took place in the 1970s as an interesting choral voice, reminiscent of the format of Greek tragedies. Things get weird when the youngest sister, Cecilia, commits suicide, jumping from her bedroom window. Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon are devastated. The girls become progressively more detached and emotionally removed from their school and community until they stop leaving home altogether. Meanwhile, their house is undergoing a pathetic process of deterioration and decay. It looks terrible and smells bad. One year later, all the sisters will have killed themselves as well. What happened? Who’s to blame? Disturbing. Beautifully written. A masterpiece. The story was made into an acclaimed movie by director Sophia Coppola in 2000.

The Pact by Jodi Picoult

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(Originally published in 1998). Aimed at young adults and adults. Issues covered: teenage pregnancy; young love; suicide.

Chris Harte and Emily Gold have known each other since they were born 17 years ago, only a few months apart. Their parents are neighbors and best friends. The kids were inseparable and their friendship blossomed into romantic love, which was exactly what their parents had been hoping for all along. They are about to finish high school, their whole lives ahead of them. Nevertheless, when they are found lying in a pool of blood near the carousel they loved going to at night, it looks like a double suicide took place. Could it have been a sinister pact? But only one bullet was fired and Chris survives, which makes the police suspect foul play.

Undone By Cat Clarke

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(Originally published in 2013). Aimed at young adult readers. Issues covered: sexual orientation; bullying; suicide.

This time, instead of the infamous tapes of 13 Reasons Why, the protagonist, high-school student Jem Halliday, gets monthly letters from the afterlife with specific instructions for her to follow. The story, which takes place in a small town in England, is narrated in the first person by Jem, who has a huge crush on her best friend and long-time neighbor Kai McBride. Kai, who happens to be gay, is brutally outed when a video showing intimate scenes between him and another boy gets e-mailed anonymously to his colleagues at school, kicking off heavy homophobic bullying. As a result, Kai kills himself. Jem, outraged and angry, sets out on a mission to avenge her beloved friend. But to accomplish that, she needs to become part of the elite gang of popular kids at school.

A Gothic Christmas Angel by Anna Erishkigal

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(Originally published in 2013). Aimed at young adults. Issues covered: relationships; family matters; suicide.

This retelling of Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol takes place in modern-day Cape Cod, Massachusetts. 18-year-old Cassie works as a barista to help her alcoholic and harping mother. Her father abandoned the family when she was a kid. It’s Christmas Eve. Cassie gets dumped by her cheating boyfriend of five months, and out of despair, deliberately crashes her car into an old beech tree. As she lies slumped over the steering wheel, Cassie has an out-of-body kind of experience, being visited upon by a dark angel, Jeremiel – described in the book as “a smoking hot, really tall Goth Dude”. Can he help her review her life and avoid being sucked by demons into Hell?

Would you have any other suggestions? Please let us know.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

Stephen King’s The Shining: Like Father, Like Son.


Looking for the perfect book to read during Halloween? The Shining by Stephen King is a classic: one of the scariest books ever written. One reason for its popularity is the novel was turned into a celebrated movie directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duval in the main roles, back in the 1980s.

Rumor has it that King himself was not entirely happy with the movie adaptation. If you read the book, you will probably understand why. Although the movie is heavily inspired by the book, it takes a lot of detours from the original plot and skips important themes that play an essential subtext.

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In broad strokes, the novel tells the story of Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic with a short temper, who – unable to find a job anywhere else, after beating up a student at the school he used to work as writing teacher – is hired, with the help of a friend, as the caretaker of the sinister Overlook hotel for the winter months, taking his young wife, Wendy, and their 5-year-old son, Danny, with him.

The hotel is completely empty and isolated. To spice things up, Danny has the gift of precognition, popularly known, among the initiated, as the shining: he can read people’s thoughts, foresee the future, and have glimpses of violent incidents that took place a long time ago. Weird things start happening at the hotel. The family, especially the father and the son, are haunted by ghosts and unusual experiences.

Among the strange ocurrences that contribute to its sense of horror, the novel depicts a topiary – bushes and trees trimmed in the form of a rabbit, two lions and a dog – that seems to come to life occasionally; a dead woman who rises from a bathtub in room 217 (to this day, guests in many real hotels are said to turn down the offer to occupy the room with this number because of the novel); images of a mob murder that happened years before materialize in vivid form in front of the kid; in addition, mufffled sounds of a mask ball from the past are heard continually at night.images-2

Could all this be a metaphor for a darker link between father and son? The symptoms of something terrible lurking inside the boy and ready to blossom?

As the months go by and the winter becomes harsher, the claustrophobic atmosphere of the hotel inevitably starts to unhinge Jack Torrance, whose madness slowly sets in. He becomes a deadly menace to his own family.

(Watch the clip of one of the best scenes of the movie below. Warning: strong language is used)

Stephen King is not only a bestselling and prolific author, but he’s also really talented. His books are not just airport thrillers made out of a schematic formula meant to provide a couple of hours  of entertainement before being thrown out in the trash can at the end of your journey. The Shining, for example, can be read on at least two different levels. On a simpler, more straightforward level, we have the chilling mystery tale of a family stranded by heavy snow and lack of telecommunications, living alone in a more than 50-year-old luxurious hotel up in the mountains of Colorado.

An even more disturbing way of interpreting The Shining, however, is to read it as a vigorous metaphor for alcoholism, its genetic origins and terrible consequences: the story would consist of hyperbolic images translating the symptoms of that powerful disease that can be handed down from father to son to grandson, causing extreme anxiety, cravings, hallucinations, madness, violence, and, ultimately, death.

As backstory, the reader learns that Jack’s own father was an alcoholic. He would come home from his job as a nurse, smelling of booze and behaving nastily to his wife and kids. Despite being very fond of his father, Jack’s love wears out, as he witnesses a vicious beating his Dad administers to his Mom, for no reason at all.

Danny and Jack, for their turn, are quite close too. As a matter of fact, the bond between father and son is so strong that Wendy sometimes feels left out of their peculiar masculine world, and, as a result, even gets a bit jealous.

In an alternative interpretation of the novel, therefore, the closeness between father and son, Jack’s increasing madness at the hotel and Danny’s precognition gift can be easily understood as the addictive genetic inheritance handed down to the next generation, the beginning of what will become for Danny a full-blown disease in the future.

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Steven King himself was an alcoholic at the time he wrote the novel and the theme in The Shining reflects his own worries and unhappiness about the problem. Writing, after all, has always been a potent way of purging one’s own demons.

Whatever layer of the story you choose, rest assured it will scare the living daylights out of you, which is why the book is such a great thriller in all respects.The book sustains a very oppressive atmosphere, making it a rather dark reading experience – entirely suitable to celebrate your Halloween night. The tension in the story grows progressively unbearable, culminating in a gruesome climactic sequence. Not to be missed.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

All About Batman’s Fiercest Enemies


Batman, The Dark Knight, is one of the most iconic graphic novel characters of all time. Created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill finger in 1939, Batman’s secret identity is Bruce Wayne, an American billionaire whose parents were murdered when he was only a boy. As a consequence, Bruce Wayne swore revenge on all the criminals of the corrupt-ridden Gotham, the fictitious city he lives in.

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This world-famous DC Comics’s superhero has had his adventures turned into a popular TV show in the 1960s and numerous successful movies ever since. Bats, as he’s oftentimes called by some of his friends and foes, is up against a huge gallery of rogues – most of them mentally-disturbed individuals who develop idiosyncratic theme-related personas with corresponding crime styles.

We have selected six of Batman’s most dangerous enemies to discuss in this post. We cover their main personality traits, objectives and modus operandi, highlighting a couple of prominent quotes and naming famous actors who have portrayed them in movies or television.

The Joker: one of the Cape Crusader’s scariest villains. A sadistic clown, with a disturbing grin, the joker was responsible for the murder of Jason Todd, Batman’s sidekick Robin, and for crippling Barbara Gordon, Batgirl, who became a paraplegic. In the movies, the Joker has been played by great actors such as Heath Leger, Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero. One of his quotes: “In my dream, the world had suffered a terrible disaster. A black haze shut out the sun, and the darkness was alive with the moans and screams of wounded people. Suddenly, a small light glowed. A candle flickered into life, symbol of hope for millions. A single tiny candle, shining in the ugly dark. I laughed and blew it out.”

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The Riddler: Edward Nigma wants, more than anything else, to prove his intellectual superiority over Batman. He challenges the Bat by throwing in riddles, puzzles and word games as clues to the crimes he’s either planning or is already executing. The Riddler has been played on the big screen by Jim Carrey (Batman Forever, 1995). Two of his riddles:

Q: What is the beginning of eternity, the end of time and space, the beginning of every end and the end of every race?

A: The letter ‘E’

Q: What belongs to you, but is used by others?

A: Your name

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Two-Face: Harvey Dent was a close friend of Bruce Wayne’s and a former district attorney, defending Gotham City against its criminals. His life changed radically after being assaulted by Gotham City’s infamous mobster Sal Maroni, who cast acid into Dent’s face, disfiguring half of it. The incident heavily affected Harvey Dent’s mental health, causing him to develop an obsession with duality and the number two. Of course, this makes for a very interesting and sophisticated character, always torn between good and evil. Two-Face has the habit of flipping a one-dollar coin, with one of its sides suitably defaced, to make decisions about the conclusion of his crimes: eg. to kill a victim or not. Actor Aaron Eckhart offered a very convincing rendition of the rogue in the 2008 movie The Dark Knight. A quote by this fascinating villain: You have broken into our hideout. You have violated the sanctity of our lair. For this we should crush your bones into POWDER. However, you do pose a very interesting proposition: therefore, heads, we accept, and tails, we blow your damned head off!

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Poison-Ivy: Pamela Isley, a student of advanced botanical biochemistry, is an eco-terrorist. Her aim is to protect plants at all costs. She won’t hesitate to kill humans to protect nature, using all her knowledge of poisons and toxins to achieve her goals. Pamela has a love/hate relationship with Batman. Actress Uma Thurman portrayed the hot red-head in the 1997 movie Batman and Robin. A couple of quotes by the villain:

  1. So many people to kill… so little time.
  1. It took God seven days to create paradise. Let’s see if I can do better.

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Catwoman: Selina Kyle is a lover of felines and their protector. She is sometimes portrayed as a burglar and jewel thief. In most stories, however, she is more of an antihero than a typical villain, as her love/hate relationship with Batman tends to blur the lines. Actress Michele Pfeiffer infused the role of Catwoman with a powerful dose of sensuality in the movie Batman Returns (1992). A quote: Meow!

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The Penguin: Oswald Cobblepot uses his nightclub, the Iceberg Lounge, as a front for his criminal activities. His ultimate goal is financial gain, as it suits a businessman. Always smartly dressed in a tuxedo and top hat, the Penguin makes use of his collection of umbrellas as deadly weapons. The character has been unforgettably portrayed by actor Burgess Meredith in the iconic TV series of the 1960s. One of the man-bird’s quote: [to Catwoman] You’re Beauty and the Beast in one luscious Christmas gift pack.

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In the comments section below, please share with us your thoughts on Batman and his rogue gallery.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

What Does Bob Dylan Mean Today?


Bob Dylan’s poetry has been enchanting generations for more than half a century now. His songs remain as relevant and powerful as they used to be for the counterculture youth of the 1960s.

To this day, those songs continue to inspire, constantly featuring in contemporary movies and TV series, as a way to contextualize and illuminate universal themes and feelings. A Shelter from the Storm, for example, was recently used in the soundtrack of Danny Boyle’s biopic Steve Jobs as an effective tool to highlight the turbulent relationship between the Apple co-founder and his daughter Lisa; the poignant Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, marked the end of season one of the iconic TV series Mad Men, when Don Draper, its unstable protagonist, hits rock bottom, arriving at his suburban home at the end of the day to find out that Betty, his wife, has finally left and taken their kids away.

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On October 13 Bob Dylan was awarded one of the most important literary prizes in the world: the Nobel. To celebrate the recognition of one of the greatest poets of the XX century, let’s listen to his landmark anti-war hymn, BLOWIN’ IN THE WING (see You Tube video clip below), and reflect on its relevance for today’s audiences. With your study group, family or friends, discuss the questions below. You can share some of your answers with us in the comments section.

How do the 1960s in general compare to the 2010s? Point out some similarities and differences.

 What does the song Blowin’ in the Wind originally refer to? What could it refer to now?

 How would you rephrase the verse “how many roads must a man walk down before we call him a man”?

 What do we turn our heads to and pretend not to see today?

 What does the metaphor to look up and really see the sky mean?

 Enjoy!

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

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Philip Roth on Love (The Dying Animal)


“The only obsession everyone wants: ‘love.’ People think that in falling in love they make themselves whole? The Platonic union of souls? I think otherwise. I think you’re whole before you begin. And the love fractures you. You’re whole, and then you’re cracked open. ”

 

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Almodóvar’s Julieta


The critics are right: Almódovar is not the same. Julieta, his latest movie, is nothing like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which catapulted the Spanish director to international fame almost thirty years ago.

Julieta is more mature, serious and, in many respects, a lot better, reflecting the evolution and progressive refinement of a seasoned maestro. Of course, some fans will miss the raw humor and shock value of his earlier movies, which celebrated la movida madrileña, the cultural movement of the late 70s and early 80s that stood in direct opposition to the values and life style of Franco’s dictatorial years. In those days of la movida, it was necessary to burn the cultural bra to make a point. Those times are over, though. Besides, for more nostalgic viewers, quite a few of his movies of that era are available on Netflix, at your fingertip.

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 Julieta, on the other hand, belongs to the 2010s. It is allowed – strike that; required is the precise word – to be simpler and more contained. Nevertheless, it has kept the director’s inimitable voice and style: the bright colors, the Madrid touch, and the inscrutable strong women are still there. And even Rossy the Palma, one of the muses of his early years as a filmmaker, makes a comeback; her wondrous nose, uneven eyes and twisted mouth working their magic, in the role of a modern-day Cassandra.

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Rossy de Palma in the 1980s.

I find it unbelievable that many critics will say that Almodóvar has never mastered the skills to tell a story. His narrative powers are weak, some say. Obviously, these critics abide by only one model of storytelling: the commercial cinema of Hollywood. Although I respect the claim that some narrative elements and archetypes make themselves present one way or another in every story ever told, they should be rearranged in as many different ways as creative directors can come up with. Almodóvar’s storylines do follow a structure – although an idiosyncratic one. Digression plays a big part in his method.

Without the digression, Julieta would be a simple tale about guilt. It’s the digressions that allow Almodóvar to present the viewer with unique images (an elk running in slow motion alongside a moving train at night; the bluest sea shown though the open windows of a living room in Galicia; the Swiss Alps shot in all their glory); intriguing metaphors: references to Homer’s Odyssey and the power of the sea to entice men like Ulisses and Xoan, pulling them from the safety of their houses and the comfort of their families; and one of the most original transitions between youth and old age in movie history: actress Adrian Ugarte is replaced by Emma Suárez at the sudden removal of a red tower.

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Pedro Almodóvar

Julieta is a delight to the eyes. You could just sit back for hours watching these beautiful women move around in fashionable clothes, stepping in and out of fascinating Madrid buildings, walking along its narrow cobblestone streets or just sitting in close-up against the backdrop of stunningly decorated apartments.

With the help of great actors and a stunning musical store by Alberto Iglesias, Almodóvar turns the straightforward story of a family marked by tragedy into a Hitchockian thriller – with echoes of Vertigo. Viewers will be met by twists and little surprises at every turn, relishing the journey. Almodóvar has developed the fearlessness of those who have nothing more to prove. He shoots his movies out of sheer pleasure. Who can blame him?

Au revoir

Jorge.

 

 

Maracanã Explodes under the Protective Arms of Christ, the Redeemer


Rio Olympic Games’ Opening Ceremony took place on the warm evening of August 5th at the Maracanã stadium, an iconic sporting venue, known all over the world. It was a jaw-dropping festival of creativity, lights, dance and music, extremely well-orchestrated by movie directors Fernando Meirelles (City of God) and Andrucha Waddington (Me You Them), and produced by Daniela Thomas (Foreign Land).

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Due to the serious political-economic crisis Brazil is going through at the moment – plagued by the worst recession in its history and having a president on the verge of impeachment – Brazilians have been deeply divided over the convenience and benefits of hosting the most important sporting event in the world. Many foreigners have also been quick at pointing out problems with the organization of the Games, believing the event is doomed.

Contrary to all expectations, however, the stunningly beautiful and energetic Opening Ceremony came as pleasant surprise, boosting Brazilians’ morale and making them proud of their country. It also signaled that the first Olympic Games in South America may run more smoothly than predicted, after all.

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Among the highlights of the evening, we would list:

  • An emotional rendition of the national anthem by composer Paulinho da Viola, which brought tears to the audience’s eyes.
  • A powerful delivery by actresses Fernanda Montenegro and Judi Dench of poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s poem A Flor e a Náusea – used as a way to mark the importance of keeping the world sustainable and green.
  • As a follow-up, the world witnessed the implementation of an impressive initiative: all athletes contributed seeds of the native flora to the plantation of what will become the Radical Forest – let’s remember that the exuberant present-day Floresta da Tijuca (Tijuca Forest) was also man-made, the result of a similar initiative undertaken by Dom Pedro II, the enlightened emperor of Brazil during the second half of the XIX century.
  • The lighting of the Olympic Torch was conducted by long-distance runner Vanderlei de Lima, offering the audience an unforgettable spectacle, as the cauldron on fire was raised against the backdrop of a revolving metal structure which reflected its light, simulating a radiating sun.

The gods must have been pleased.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette