Teaching English with Art: make your online lessons stand out


Ideal for online lessons!!

If you are having any of the following problems, we can help you…

a. Are your students often bored during the English class? b. Don’t they know what to say when you set up speaking activities? c. Do you spend the weekend correcting writing assignments that don’t seem to help them improve? d. Is it hard to personalize productive skills and link the English lesson to the other subjects in the school curriculum? e. The students know nothing about Art and high culture in general.

Click on each of the pictures below to get your copy from the KINDLE STORE:

 

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Teaching English with Art: Norman Rockwell

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Teaching English with Art

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Teaching English with Art: Picasso

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Teaching English with Art: Monet.

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Teaching English with Art is the series for you! This eBook series is a wonderful supplement to any coursebook or extra materials your students may already be using in the English class. Each volume contains 30 speaking and writing activities for classroom use based on some of the most striking works by famous artists: for now we have MATISSE, PICASSO, CARAVAGGIO, MONET, NORMAN ROCKWELL, a special three-in-one volume of MONET + PICASSO + MATISSE (90 activities), and we’ve just launched VAN GOGH.

IMPORTANT NOTE:

PERSONALIZATION: if you wish to change the cover of any of the ebooks, add your school logo, negotiate a special price for a determined number of students, or make other suggestions of customization, do not hesitate to talk to us. We are VERY FLEXIBLE. Make your ebook UNIQUE!

The objective of these eBooks is to expose the students to high art while having them practice English, fulfilling, therefore, one of the tenets of effective language acquisition: providing a realistic context for the language to be learned and practiced as a means to an end. Your students will love to exercise their English discussing  and do writing  tasks based on the works of these great artists.  The activities are highly personalized, so the students can express their own opinions and feelings. This is a proven way to make language acquisition fun and effective by creating in the classroom an atmosphere of interest, motivation and personalization. Each activity is clearly correlated to the COMMON EUROPEAN FRAMEWORK OF REFERENCE (CEFR), and the level is stated next to it. Ideally both you and your students should purchase the material.  For heads up activities, project the images on a white wall. Chose your favorite artist and click on the corresponding  image below to go to AMAZON.COM and get your e-book:

 

If you need more instructions on how to purchase the eBooks, please click here: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1Cz

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

Fascinating Facts about Three of Velázquez’s Most Famous Paintings


If you are a fan of the works of Diego Velázquez, considered by many the painter of painters, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the information I gathered for this article:

1. Volcan’s Forge (1630)

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This is one of the uncommissioned paintings produced by Velázquez right after his first trip to Italy, where he stayed from 1629 to 1631. The painting shows the moment, narrated in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when Apollo, the god of light, shows up at Vulcan’s forge, to tell him that his wife, Venus, the goddess of love, is having an affair with Mars, the god of War. Apollo is identified by the crown of laurel on his head and the orange toga he is wearing. Vulcan, the man on his right, looks horrified and even dangerous. He seems to be working on an armor for Mars himself.

Velázquez had become heavily influenced by Italian art during his trip. This is noticeable in this work by the choice of subject matter – mythology – and by the study of the male nude. However, Velázquez, being the great artist that he was, could not help but add a personal touch to the painting: as we can see, although the bodies replicate in their perfection and athleticism the idealization of the Greek-Roman statuary, the men’s faces look common, contemporary and even ugly. The exaggerated expressions of surprise and shock are a characteristic of the Baroque movement, which did not refrain from showing emotion. There is also an almost comic element to the painting, as it does not seem to treat Mythology with the respect it inspired in other painters. Apollo looks rather full of himself, which you can tell from his posture and body language, such as the curved back and the raised finger.

It’s also worth pointing out that the painting suggests a tri-dimensional perspective: the figure in the background, for example, looks blurred, as if we were actually seeing him from a greater distance. Some of the figures in the painting are displayed in front of others, a technique used to create the illusion of depth. In addition to that, the work suggests a combination of genre painting – the representation of the daily work in a regular forge – with the mythological theme. This kind of combination was rather unusual at the time.

Moreover, some critics claim the painting had the objective of enticing prospective patrons: the artist was perhaps trying to show off his draftsmanship, demonstrating how he could depict the male nude in different positions, in a balanced composition.

2. The Spinners (Las Hilanderas, 1657)

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Critics understand this painting as the representation of the fable of Arachne, as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses. In the story, Arachne was a shepherd’s daughter who developed an extraordinary skill as a weaver. When asked who had taught her how to weave so well, she said she had learned it on her own. This insulted Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and the crafts, who showed up as an old woman to give Arachne a chance to apologize and acknowledge that her skill could only have come from the goddess. Arachne refused to do so, which made Athena furious. She reverted to her natural form and set up a contest with Arachne to prove who could weave better.

The story unfolds in two stages in Velázquez’s painting. In the foreground, we see the contest itself, as it takes place. Athena would be the older woman on the left. The fact that she is the goddess is betrayed by the youth and the skin glow of her exposed leg. Her ability is demonstrated not only by the relaxed attitude in which she operates the spinning wheel but also by the speed of the instrument, whose stokes we can hardly see.

Arachne, on the other hand, is seen working furiously on the right, with her back to the viewer. Arachne’s skillful work is also indicated by the speed of her performance – notice that her left hand moves so fast it seems to have 6 fingers! They are assisted by three other women in their work.

The conclusion of the story can be seen in the background of the painting. Arachne’s final work – represented here by a copy of Titian’s The Abduction of Europe – beats Athena’s. Athena, the woman wearing a helmet in the painting, is so angry that she rips Arachne’s work to threads. The goddess is seen here at the moment when she is casting the curse that will turn Arachne into a spider, so she will spend the rest of her life spinning webs. The obvious lesson is humans must not compete with the gods.

Just like in the previous painting we analyzed, Velázquez’s work in Las Hilanderas is a clever combination of genre and mythological themes. The women in the foreground look just like her contemporaries at a weaving workshop. It’s in the background that we have a more explicit reference to the myth, marked both by the presence of Athena is his Greek clothes and by the replication of the mythological work of Titian.

3. The Toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus, 1647-1651)

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This is the only nude study of a woman painted by Velázquez to reach our days. He seems to have painted three, but two of them are lost. This kind of risqué painting was the object of careful surveillance by the Catholic Church during those harsh times of the Spanish Inquisition. Artists who dared to break the rule faced the threat of excommunication.

This painting, which is sometimes called The Rokeby Venus due to the fact that it was in the Morrit Collection at Rokeby Park, shows the goddess who personifies love and beauty lying with the back to the viewer and looking into a mirror held by her son, the god Cupid. The blurred image in the mirror is explained by the fact that ideal beauty cannot be represented.

However, contrary the trend of the times, Venus looks slimmer than the more voluptuous women usually depicted by other painters. She is also a brunette, while most other representations of Venus show her as a blond. These details all seem to indicate a wish to depict just a beautiful Spanish woman of Velázquez’s own days. Besides, the painting does not show any of the other items that characterize the goddess in other paintings, such as myrtle, roses and jewelry. Except for the presence of the winged Cupid holding the mirror, nothing indicates she is the goddess.

It’s interesting to notice how her curvaceous body is echoed by the rounded belly of Cupid and by the folds of the drapery and bed sheets.

Just like in Velázquez’s most famous painting, Las Meninas, which we discussed in a previous blog post (please click here for the post: https://jorgesette.com/2020/03/14/las-meninas-by-velazquez-under-the-magnifying-glass/), the presence of the mirror, and the fact the goddess seems to be looking at us through it, incorporates an element of mystery to the painting. It seems to stimulate a conversation between the work and the viewer, generating a discussion about the dichotomy between art and reality, representation and fact.

This brings us to the end of our blog post. It’s fascinating to discover the facts, the legends and the stories behind famous works of art. If you have further info, opinions or questions about the paintings discussed above, please don’t hesitate to enter your comments in the box below. We would love to share your perspective with our readers.

Jorge Sette

 

Oliver Sacks – A Review of His Autobiography, On the Move: A Life


Neurologist, researcher, clinician, but especially a great storyteller, Oliver Sacks has millions of fans around the world. His books, which are essentially collections of case studies from his experience looking after patients with brain disorders, can be said to have established a new literary genre.

To me, the appeal of reading Oliver Sacks’ autobiography, On the Move: A Life, was to catch a glimpse of the real man behind the public figure and to learn more about the amazing neurological cases and concepts I’d read about in some of his previous books.

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The autobiography tells us about aspects of his private life that didn’t make their way into his clinical stories. We learn, for example, about his rebel side as a lone motorcycle rider in the 50s and 60s, and about his love of strenuous – and sometimes foolhardy – physical activities, such as extreme weightlifting, swimming in dangerous waters and hiking alone. We also find out about his Jewish family background, his evacuation to a boarding school run by a sadistic headmaster during the second world war, his homosexuality, solitude and 35-year celibacy, and his drug addiction during the 1960s (although he was considered only a weekend “tripper,” having to cope with a challenging job during the week).

What struck me particularly was Sacks’ peripatetic nature, made explicit in the title of the book. It seems he was trying to escape from something, perhaps from himself, due to the fact that he was different – like his patients – but also from his family and the burden of growing up with a schizophrenic older brother. However, being constantly on the move may have been a consequence not only of the restlessness of his soul but also of the strong mental and physical energy he exuded until very late in life.

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Oliver Sacks

What mainly resonated with me was his account of his obsession with writing. Sacks kept journals, taking notes of his experiences, registering his observations, thoughts and feelings. He always had a notebook on hand, even when he went swimming – which, he claimed, stimulated his mind – and he would sometimes dash out of the water to scribble his thoughts down on the pad lying nearby. He may never use those notes when he was writing his books later on, but putting his thoughts down on paper was a powerful way of clarifying his ideas and reflecting on intriguing points; it was like carrying out a conversation with himself.

Laypeople cannot judge how good a doctor Oliver Sacks was. His track record as a researcher and even as a clinician has been disputed a number of times. Also, his decision to base his stories on the cases of real patients caused controversy, as some people claimed it was unethical. His first book, Migraine, was aimed only at the medical community, but it inevitably appealed to a wider public and generated popular interest. He then gave up trying to make his accounts mere reports on medical facts and purposely imbued his stories with themes, metaphors, and humanistic and philosophical considerations, which took his writing to a whole new level.

Sacks’ case studies never give the reader the impression he’s taking advantage of his patients or exploiting them for commercial purposes. He doesn’t come across as someone who’s treating human misery as a circus show. He genuinely seems to care, and his stories, despite the unthinkable suffering of many of the people involved, are mostly uplifting. He reinforces our belief in the power of humans to come to terms with tragedy and even to overcome it.

Following the publication of Awakenings and A Leg to Stand On, Sacks gained notoriety, but it was the publication of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in 1985 that turned him into a public figure and a celebrity recognized worldwide.

One of the most interesting passages in On the Move covers the time Sacks worked as a consultant for the movie Awakenings, based on his book. Although Sacks hadn’t loved the script, which contained some fictitious subplots he wasn’t comfortable with, he decided at one point that the movie was not his, and, therefore, not his responsibility. This realization liberated him, allowing him to adopt a more relaxed attitude and to accept his role in the project.

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Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in Awakenings

In his autobiography, Sacks praises actor Robert De Niro’s extensive and detailed research to play the postencephalitic Leonard L., stating that De Niro would sometimes stay in character for hours or even days after filming. Sacks also comments on how weird it felt to be mirrored by Robin Williams on the many days they spent together as the actor researched the model behind the character he would portray –  based on Sacks himself. I watched the movie again to write this post and found it a bit dated, lacking a drier, less sentimental approach to the subject. It could have benefited from a wittier and more creative script, since it wasn’t supposed to be a faithful replication of real life. I wonder how much better it might turn out if it was remade today, especially as an HBO production. I loved Robin William’s performance – subtle, subdued and contained. As for Robert De Niro’s, I’m afraid he didn’t convince me in the role of a postencephalitic patient.

In summary, reading On the Move: A Life was as fascinating an experience as reading Sacks’ previous books. His language and fluency are remarkable. He writes through examples; he doesn’t explain or define concepts in technical ways. That’s what makes it easy for us to appreciate his stories.

Reading Sacks’ books, I learned a lot about curious brain conditions I never suspected existed. I became familiar with a wealth of new words and concepts: aphasia, amusia, musicophilia, synesthesia, visual cortex, auditory cortex, Tourette’s syndrome and prosopagnosia, to name just a few. In his wonderful book Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, he made me understand that sign language is just another mode of language, not unlike verbal language in its sophistication and capacity to express all kinds of concepts, both abstract and concrete, through perfectly structured grammar. These kinds of enthralling revelations are the stuff his books are made of. You simply can’t put them down once you get started. On the Move: A Life is equally irresistible.

Sacks found out he had melanoma in his right eye in 2005. When it metastasized to his brain and liver in January 2015, he knew his death was imminent, but he seemed to have already come to terms with it. When he publicly announced his predicament, he added: “I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.” On the Move: A Life gave me a sense of a life well lived, packed with adventures, experiences, profound learning and fulfillment. Oliver Sacks died on August 30, 2015.

Jorge Sette

5 Booker Prize Winners that will Rock your World


The Booker Prize or The Man Booker Prize for Fiction – initially called the Booker-McConnell Prize, due to the company which sponsored it – is an English literary prize created in 1968. It is awarded to the best novel of the year. At first, only Commonwealth, Irish, and Zimbabwean writers were eligible, but as of 2013, the eligibility was extended to any novel written in English and published in the UK. Being awarded, or even shortlisted for it, is a great honor, as the prize warrants success and fame for every writer who’s associated with it.

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As a voracious reader, I can assure you that, whenever you finish a novel and are left with that familiar void, yearning for another great book to come your way, taking a look at the Booker Prize list of winners or shortlisted books is a great way to begin your search. You will hardly be disappointed.

The list below is my personal choice of great Booker Prize Winners. I’m sure they will stay with you long after you finished reading them, as the language is stunning and the plots are both original and gripping. The books below are listed according to the year they received the prize:

  1. Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle (winner of the 1993 Booker Prize)

Funny, moving and poignant, this novel is told from the perspective of a 10-year-old Irish boy growing up in the 1960s. As he narrates his experiences – using the logic and language of childhood – we get to know his discoveries, games and adventures with his little brother, the relationship between his parents and the daily routine of his family. Despite the cheerful tone of the book, at some point, readers begin to suspect they are being misled by the unreliable narrative of a child: not everything is going well at home, the truth is his parents are drifting apart and about to break up.

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  1. Amsterdam by Ian McEwan (winner of the 1998 Booker Prize)

Three former lovers cross paths at the cremation of their common mistress, Molly Lane, without realizing that the meeting will be a turning point in their lives. Their careers and personal lives will be cleverly manipulated by the woman’s jealous and resentful widower, George, who will set them on a collision course with one another, crafting a spiderweb of blackmails, mutual blames and lies, tabloid stories, debauched cross-dressing photographs, sinister euthanasia doctors and, ultimately, violence and tragedy. Clive Linley, one of the lovers, is a musician who, after attending the cremation, embarks on a depressive behavior, worried that he may get sick and die as young and unexpectedly as Molly. As a consequence, he is having a mental block, which prevents him from finishing up the Millennium symphony he was assigned to compose. Fame and recognition are at stake here and he is frantic (the language used by the author to describe the composer’s creative process and its drawbacks is already a good reason to make you love the book); Molly’s second lover, Vernon Halliday, is a mediocre editor of a serious and conventional newspaper whose circulation and readership are going seriously down. He is suddenly given the chance to resort to dirty and cheap tabloid tactics to try to reverse the process, publishing intimate photographs which are likely to destroy the family life and career plans of the third lover, Julian Garmony, a foreign secretary with aspirations of becoming prime minister.

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  1. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (winner of the 2002 Booker Prize)

A hymn to religious tolerance, a celebration of life in all its forms, and the recognition of the power of storytelling make Life of Pi an unforgettable novel. The story contrasts myth and reason, religion and science, asking the reader to compare the effectiveness of simply narrating the factual sequence of events of a journey with the alternative of fictionalizing it through the use of allegories. Which version would you choose as the more insightful and helpful way to understand the world? A Canadian writer in search of ideas for his new book is promised the opportunity to hear a story that will make him believe in God. With this aim, he agrees to meet and listen to the life story of an Indian man who spent 227 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean, sharing a lifeboat with none other than a Bengal tiger, after the shipwreck of the Japanese cargo ship which would take his family to Canada. Brutal, scatological, philosophic, funny and poetic, Life of Pi saddens, cheers and inspires the reader, who will certainly come out of the experience loving tales and metaphors even more than when he started the book.

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  1. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (winner of the 2009 Booker Prize)

The first part of this trilogy tells the known story of the marriage of Henry Tudor and Anne Boleyn and all the political, religious and social upheavals involved in making it happen. The novelty is the choice of perspective chosen by the author, who decides to focus the novel on a lesser historical character, whose life details are not very well-known: Thomas Cromwell. Choosing Cromwell – who rises from being the son of a Putney blacksmith to Master Secretary of the kingdom, due to his intelligence and cunning – as the protagonist of the story allows the author to fill in the blanks of history books with her fertile imagination, transporting and placing the reader smack in the middle the exciting events that happened more than 500 years ago.

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  1. Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (winner of the 2012 Booker Prize)

This is the second volume of the Cromwell trilogy, and, in my opinion, better written and even more exciting than the first – to me, it sounds like the author finally found the best way to tell the story. Despite all the efforts and machinations of the court to bring Anne Boleyn and Henry Tudor together, causing England to sever links with the Catholic Church, and antagonizing its powerful neighbors in Europe by appointing Henry VIII the head of the Church of England, the queen fails to deliver a male heir and will have to be ousted. Craftily paving the way to Henry’s new marriage to Jane Seymore, Cromwell will become Anne’s main nemesis, ruthlessly plotting the annulment of her marriage and driving her to a thunderous fall, which will bring many others down with her. Terrific reading.

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Have you read any of these books? Share your comments with us. Also, watch this space for further suggestions on the wonderful books out there you may not have heard about.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

Jorge Amado’s Novels: Marxism, Humor and the Beauty of the African-Brazilian Culture


Jorge Amado (August 10, 2012 – August 6, 2001) was a very prolific Brazilian author, having written more than 30 novels, translated into some 49 languages. Most of his stories are set in the state of Bahia, the region where he was born. His works highlight the brutal economic inequality of the society and the richness of his state’s Afro-Brazilian culture: the empowering traits of the religious cult of Candomblé, the beauty and creativity of its mestizo people, the spicy flavors of the delicious local cuisine, and the rhythms of its music and local dance/martial art (capoeira).

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Salvador, the capital of Bahia, the state Jorge Amado was born in. Photo: April, 2019. Jorge Sette.

Through Amado’s characters, we get to hear the voice of the lower classes, the poor, the fallen and the discriminated against. We also hear the voices of the strong women of Brazil. Despite the fact that his early books were derogatorily characterized as sentimental Marxism, Jorge Amado matured as a writer, as of the late 1950s. With the publication of Gabriela, Clove and Cinammon (1958), his novels became a lot more sophisticated, funny and authentic. Satire became a strong element of his style. The main themes of Jorge Amado’s books, however, remained the same: the lives of the poor people of Bahia, their traditions, the religious syncretism between Catholicism and the African cults, the prejudice and discrimination against the mixed-raced (mestizo) people of Brazil (which, ironically, comprises most of the population!) and open criticism of the hypocritical moral values of the Brazilian upper and middle classes.

Jorge Amado was a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters from 1961 until his death in 2001. Here’s a list of his most popular works.

1.  Captains of the Sands (Capitães da Areia, 1937)

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Captains of the Sands, a rather romanticized account of the lives of a gang of abandoned street kids in the city of Salvador (called the city of Bahia in the book), whose crimes terrorize the local population, may sound a bit tame by today’s standards. After all, the level of real juvenile violence experienced in the big cities of Brazil (exposed in books such as City of God by Paulo Lins, for example) surpass by far what we read in this novel, which takes place in the 1930s.

However, the reader can still be moved and relate to the thesis of how the social-economic context deprives these kids of their innocence and childhood and is ultimately responsible for their corruption and lack of choice. Reminiscent of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, the book focuses on the adventures of the leader of the gang, Pedro Bala (bullet), and five of his closest allies, living off theft and petty crimes, and sleeping in a shack by the sea. We follow their early years as members of the feared gang of the Captains of the Sands and the different paths taken by each of them as they grow older and leave.

2. Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos, 1966)

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It’s surely inconceivable for most Latin American males to accept that it may take more than one man – at one given time – to completely satisfy the many facets of a woman’s life. In this widely successful novel (turned into a hugely popular movie in the 1970s), Jorge Amado adopts a very liberal and perhaps feminist point of view in this respect.

Flor, an adorable young woman in the Bahia of the 1920s, is an expert in the local cuisine. Her recipes are so popular that she decides to open a cooking school for girls. Soon afterwards, she meets and falls in love with the irresistible Vadinho, a typical “malandro” (a bohemian ruffian), an incorrigible rogue who spends most nights gambling and drinking in the company of prostitutes. The marriage takes place against her family’s wishes, as the whole conservative society of the time seems to foresee that it’s doomed. The couple is perfectly matched sexually, though. Vadinho fulfills Flor’s every fantasy and surpasses all her expectations in the bedroom. When he suddenly dies, celebrating Carnival, Flor is left inconsolable.

After a year of mourning, the widow finally marries the local pharmacist, a very decent man called Dr. Teodoro, who has nothing of the passion for life that Vadinho did. Teodoro stands for respectability, tender love, a reliable routine and financial safety. For a while, Flor seems happy and grateful for the arrangement, but it does not take long for her typical ardor to flourish again; she deeply misses Vadinho’s passionate lovemaking. After a couple of months living in this torture, her desire for Vadinho becomes so strong, that it brings him back from the dead. Only Flor can see him, when he appears, always naked, at the most unexpected times. He is invisible to everyone else. What will Flor do about this?

3. The War of the Saints (O Sumiço da Santa, 1988)

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The holy icon of Saint Barbara (or Yansan, the goddess of thunder and lightning, as she is known in the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé) is taken by boat from her original site, at the Church of Santo Amaro, to be part of a religious art exhibition in Salvador. When the boat docks, the saint miraculously comes to life, smiles, and winks at her fellow passengers and simply walks off through the market quay, raising Cain in the city of Salvador. Her mission is to liberate the young and beautiful Manela from the repressive grip of her aunt and guardian Adalgisa.

The plot, however, is only a pretext for the author to take the reader on an unforgettable and hilarious 48-hour tour of the city of Bahia during the oppressive years of the military dictatorship, introducing us to a series of colorful characters, savory foods and sensual religious rites. Mixing fact and fiction, where references to real musicians, singers, artists and political figures of the time abound, the narrator makes hilarious digressions, discussing, among other things, the nature of his narrative and making self-deprecating comments about his writing in a delicious conversation with the reader. This is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished and subversive books ever written by the author.

4. The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell  (A Morte e a Morte de Quincas Berro D’Água, 1959)

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This novella tells the strange and hilarious story of a man who, getting fed up with the tyranny of a bossy and nagging wife and the pettiness of the codes of respectability of the lower bourgeoisie, suddenly decides to say goodbye to all that and start a new life as a drunk vagrant in the streets of Bahia. He leaves his family and dedicates himself to the most unthinkable hedonism: getting drunk every night, having sex with prostitutes and becoming the king of the bohemians of Bahia. He craves total freedom, has a legion of loyal followers and admirers, pledging that his tomb will be the endless sea.

When he suddenly dies, however, and faces the danger of having his corpse go through a respectable and catholic wake and burial, four of his closest friends show up to pay his respects and – in a sequence of scenes filled with humor and poetry – steal the corpse (or the living-dead man – as the reader is never quite sure how dead he really is) to take him for a last night of celebration in the city, before his second and final death.

On a deeper level, the story investigates the creation of popular myths and the distortion of reality prompted by the ingrained custom of gossiping, so typical of Brazil and Bahia, in particular.

Have you ever read any of Jorge Amado’s novels? How do you like his books? Please leave a comment below.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Las Meninas by Velázquez – under the magnifying glass


One of the most controversial paintings in Western Art History is Velázquez’s intriguing The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas). Painted in 1656, it’s considered the Sevillian artist’s masterpiece. Critics and specialists have been debating how best to interpret this work for centuries, and of course, no analysis is conclusive.

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Las Meninas  (The Maids of Honor) by Velázquez, Diego.

The first question seems to be what Velázquez, who’s depicted on the left of the scene, in front of a huge canvas, is painting on it. Is he working on the very painting we see? This seems to be suggested by the palette in his left hand, whose blurred and mixed colors appear to replicate the image in front of us. However, how and why would he include himself in it?

Others, on the other hand, point out that there’s a mirror in the center background, reflecting the images of the king and queen of Spain at the time, Phillip IV and his second wife, Mariana de Austria, who would occupy the same position as the viewer as we look at the painting. This would explain why everyone seems to be gazing outward from the picture. They are actually staring at the royal couple, who would be the subject of Velazquez’s canvas within the painting. Complicated? Wait, it gets even more complex.

A third theory says that Velázquez is painting in front of a mirror (the clue is the way the parting of the hair of the Infanta Margarita, the blond girl in the center foreground, is reversed from what it would look like in reality). This would explain how the artist managed to include himself in the painting. This would also mean that everything we see is also flipped.

More interesting facts about the picture:

The central figure of the scene is the Princess or Infanta Margarita, who was about 5 years old at the time. Who are the other ten people represented in the painting? We can identify all of them historically, except for one. Flanking the Infanta, who’s at the center of the painting, we see the maids of honor. To the right of the Infanta, bowing – possibly due to the arrival of the king and the queen – we see Isabel de Velasco, and to the left, kneeling, as she offers the princess a glass of water or some kind of grease for the princess to dip her fingers in, as she seemed to have had some kind of disease, we have Doña Maria Augustina Sarmiento. On the right, we see the dwarfs Maria Barbola and Nicolas Pertusato, who is playing with the dog. The job of the dwarfs was to entertain the court members.

Behind the dwarfs, obscured by the lack of lighting, we notice Doña Marcela de Ulloa, the princess’s chaperone, and next to her, the only unrecognized figure in the painting, possibly a bodyguard. At the back, going up the stairs and opening the door, the queen’s chamberlain, José Nieto Velázquez, can be identified. The other three people are Velázquez himself and the reflections of the king and the queen in the mirror.

Another question is what kind of painting is this? It does not seem to be a portrait of Princess Margarita, due to its informality. Velázquez was a great portraitist and we have plenty of examples of what a portrait of the higher members of the court of Philip IV should look like: formal, pompous, rigid, authoritarian, exuding power. This depiction of Princess Margarida is nothing like that, resembling more a genre painting, like the bodegones (kitchen and tavern paintings Velázquez produced at the beginning of his career): this could be a snapshot of a regular day in the painter’s studio, known as “el cuarto del prince”.

Ultimately, Las Meninas could be a very personal statement of the artist about his own social status. A self-promoting artwork, to show his intimacy with the higher members of the court. The red cross painted on the left of his chest, which represents the Order of Santiago, seems to indicate this, although some critics guarantee this cross was painted only after the death of the artist, as a way of honoring him for his work under the king.

Now, all this complexity only adds to the attraction of this unique work of art, which not only shows masterful draftsmanship and use of color (the brushstrokes that make up the dresses of the ladies and their decorations seem to anticipate the Impressionist movement in some 250 years), but also to establish the concept of the painter as an intellectual.

If you ever go to Madrid, don’t even think of skipping a visit to The Prado, the museum in which this artwork hangs in all its majesty.

Jorge Sette

10 Books You Should Read to Understand Brazil Better


Congratulations, you got a new job. You will be relocated to Rio? How exciting. How did you manage to grab such an interesting post? You must know a lot about Brazil and speak good Portuguese. Or maybe you are just the only person who had the availability to move to this country. Whatever the reason, or despite how much you might already know about Brazil, I would strongly recommend you read the books listed below to get a crash course in the country. They are all fun to read and will contribute in their own way a small piece of understanding to complete the puzzle.

I’m Brazilian myself, spent most of my life here, and still profited a lot from reading these texts. Here they are:

1. The Brazilians, by Joseph Page.

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This is one of my favorite books about Brazil. It’s visibly written by someone who loves the country, and despite its very objective, and sometimes hurtful, analysis, makes you feel appreciated and liked as a local. Besides, it covers many different aspects of the culture and history of the country, including the national religions and the nuances of the current power structure, all written in a light and pleasant language. I particularly liked the way it analyzes the way the different social classes interact with each other in Brazil, with all the hypocrisy and paternalism that underlies these brutal relationships. However, the book was written way before the passing of a new set of Constitutional amendments (PEC 478 – known as PEC das Domésticas) in 2013, regulating the working  life of the “empregadas domésticas” (Live-in maids; a very typical Brazilian institution), and therefore broadening the professional rights of these underpaid and exploited workers more than 100 years after the abolition of slavery took place in the country.

2. Brazil on the Rise, The Story of a Country Transformed, by Larry Rother.

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Written around the time when the now infamous cover of the magazine THE ECONOMIST showed an illustration of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio taking off to the skies as a potent rocket on its way to a future of fully developmental glory and economic power, the book gives us the historical and economic background necessary to understand how we got to where we were by the end of the two mandates of the Labor Party, under president Luís Inácio da Silva (Lula). It focuses on the economic and political aspects and the obstacles the country had to overcome on its path towards democracy and to arrive at the reasonable level of economic stability we had some 6 years ago. Of course, things are not looking now as great as when that issue of THE ECONOMIST came out, but corrections are being made along the way and I firmly believe we will realize the bright potential we have been predicting for the past 500 years.

3. Futebol Nation: A Footballing History of Brazil, by David Goldblatt.

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The English writer does not sound very sympathetic to the country and its people. The writing is a cold and dispassionate account of the importance football gained in Brazil since its introduction in the early years of the 20th century and its ramifications through the history of the country. Although it became clear after the World Cup (2014) that football seems to have lost a lot of its importance to Brazilians – given the sense and irony most of the population demonstrated after the historic loss to Germany with a scoreline of 7×1, the book makes it clear that, especially from the 1950s to the 1990s, football was Brazilians’ greatest source of pride. It is also evident how strongly we identified the values of the nation with this foreign sport, allowing and making it easy for politicians to tap into its people’s naive passion to advance their own agendas. Although the book does not take into account the World Cup of 2014, it covers the June 2013 social unrest and popular demonstrations directed mainly against the realization of the over-budgeted upcoming event. All in all, it’s a very interesting read, even for those who are not really into the sport.

4. Backlands: The Canudos Campaign, by Euclides da Cunha.

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Considered one of the most important books of the Brazilian canon, this text is a journalistic account of the conflict of Canudos – supposedly a civil war between monarchists and republicans at the end of the nineteenth century – which took place in the arid and difficult geographic region known as the backlands in the interior of Bahia. The official story says that a group of backlanders (sertanejos), led by a religious fanatic, Antônio Conselheiro, the Counselor, built up a settlement constituted of thousands of huts forming a kind of overcrowded slum, spreading over the valleys and hills of the region. The book reads like a novel, once you manage to get through the slow and dragging geological, topographical and climactic minutiae used to describe the region in the first couple of chapters. Then it finally gets to the action, depicting with cinematographic vigor the 4 military incursions into the settlement of Canudos, defended fiercely by the backlanders (sertanejos and jagunços, the latter considered bandits infiltrated in the community).

5. The War at the End of the World, by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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While Backlands was meant to be an objective report of the Canudos War in Brazil, this book by Peruvian writer Llosa is a fictionalized version of the events. It tells the same story, but as novels go, adding the thrill and emotional twists of the format. The book depicts characters on both sides of the war, offering a balanced perspective of what happened. It’s considered one of the author’s best books. Llosa himself considers it his most accomplished novel, and it features in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon.

6. A Death in Brazil, by Peter Robb.

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A thrilling account of 500 hundreds years of Brazilian history, Australian writer Peter Robb’s book also reads like a novel. The writer lived in Brazil and offers authentic and knowledgeable insights into the country, its people and culture. He also talks very candidly and passionately about the country’s serious problems and inequalities. The death of the title is the mysterious assassination of PC Faria’s, fixer and bagman to corrupt President Collor in the early 1990s, but the book does not focus on this. It covers, among other things, the brutal slavery system we had in the country until 1888 (longer than anywhere else in the Western world), the destruction of the fugitive slave settlement of Palmares, the Canudos war, Brazilian cuisine and literature. A must-read.

7. 1808 – How a mad queen, a coward prince and a corrupt court fooled Napoleon and changed the History of Portugal and Brazil, by Laurentino Gomes.

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Written by one of the most influential journalists of Brazil, this is the first installment of a trilogy that covers the history of the country from the transfer of the Portuguese royal court to Rio de Janeiro in 1808, in a maneuver to escape the Napoleonic wars, to the events surrounding the Proclamation of the Republic in 1889.

It took 10 years of research for the first volume to come to light. It’s a well- written, direct and very readable account of the story of the arrival in Brazil of D. Joao VI, his wife, Carlota Joaquina, and their entourage, changing the destiny of the colony forever by paving the way for the declaration of independence 14 years later. Mixing the personal anecdotes of these characters – some of them very funny – with important historical events, Gomes offers the reader a sprawling overview of those times in the colony.

1808 was awarded two Jabuti Prizes, in the categories of best reportage-book and non-fiction book of the year.

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8. 1822 – How a wise man, a sad princess and a money crazy Scotsman helped D. Pedro create Brazil, a country that had everything to go wrong, by Laurentino Gomes.

This is the second volume of the trilogy we mentioned above. Now we are focusing on the story of D. Joao VI’s son, Prince Pedro, and the role he played in the declaration of the independence of the country, culminating in the historic Cry of Ipiranga, and then becoming the first Emperor of Brazil. The book reads like a thriller, depicting the highly charged political events, the confronting factions and the many different interests that led Pedro to decide to stay in the country and cut its ties with Portugal. It portrays D. Pedro I as a wild, sensual and determined young man, who did not refrain from playing the role history reserved for him. 1822 added two other Jabuti Prizes (the third and fourth) to Laurentino Gomes’s collection, again in the categories of best reportage-book and non-fiction book of the year.

9. 1889 – How a tired emperor, a vain marshal and a wronged teacher collaborated for the end of the Monarchy and the Proclamation of the Republic in Brazil, by Laurentino Gomes.

The third volume of Gomes’s acclaimed trilogy revolves around the Proclamation of the Republic in Brazil, bringing down the Empire, which had been the most stable and solid government in the region for 67 years. Emperor D. Pedro II – 0ne of the most educated man of his time – was banned from Brazil with his family, being exiled in Europe. Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca, a former anarchist and a friend of the deposed emperor’s, was in charge now, despite his old age and debilitated health.

10. Gabriella, Clove and Cinammon, by Jorge Amado.

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Besides The War at the End of the World, this is the only other novel I included on our list of top 10 choices for the reader who wishes to understand Brazil. Written by Jorge Amado, Gabriella takes place in the small town of Ilheus, in the state of Bahia, during the economic boom of the cacao in the 1920s. The book consists of two intertwined stories: the first is the romance between the bar-owner Nacib, of Syrian origin, and the drought immigrant worker Gabriella, who becomes his cook and mistress; the second story is the confrontation between the conservative plantation colonels (powerful heads of landowner families) and the wealthy young man Mundinho Falcão, who represents the arrival of modernity, efficacy and urban values in the rural underdeveloped and backward region. Readers will be delighted to have all their senses and intellect arrested, as they immerse in the world of Gabriella: Amado describes the tastes, smells, and texture of the local foods; the funny, and sometimes violent, local customs; the hypocrisy of a narrow-minded and provincial society; the brutality of machismo; and the bright colors of what is supposed to be a microcosm of Brazil and Latin America.

I guess these 10 books will give newcomers enough introductory background and information on the beautiful, challenging and diverse country I’m lucky to live in. Welcome, good luck with your new job, and don’t forget to rate and comment on this post.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

Four of Brazilian Writer Lima Barreto’s Main Works – As Modern and Relevant as Ever


Lima Barreto, the acclaimed journalist and author of the Brazilian Belle Époque, is more popular than ever these days. The author was honored at the FLIP (International Literary Party of Paraty) a couple of years ago and that made him even more well-known.  New editions of his work have been released since then. Along with these, there was also the publication of a very well-researched biography, Lima Barreto – Triste Visionário, by historian Lilia Moritz Schwarcz (Companhia da Letras), available at the main bookstores.

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Lima Barreto was born in 1881 in Rio de Janeiro and dedicated his life to writing and literature. His father was a typographer with connections with the powerful Empire Senator Viscount of Ouro Preto, who became Lima Barreto’s godfather. His mother, a freed slave, was a school teacher. She died when the writer was only six.

The key to understanding his artistic work is the overlap between the stories he created and his biography. Dark skinned (a mulato, as we say in Portuguese) and born in the lower echelons of society himself, he understood very well, and experienced first hand the issues discussed in his novels and short stories.

The main themes of his realistic pre-modernist fiction are the problems of the recently founded Brazilian Republic: class and race prejudices; the cynicism, incompetence, and arrogance of academics, journalists, politicians and the police force in general; the oppression women were subjected to. Not surprisingly, many of the problems Brazil had a hundred years ago are still current, making Lima Barreto’s works powerfully modern and still very relevant.

Lima Barreto had a productive but short life. He died at the young age of 41, plagued by alcoholism and related mental illnesses.

The books listed below have not been translated into English yet (except for The Sad End of Policarmo Quaresma), but, if you speak Portuguese, you can easily order them from Bookwitty.

  1. Recordações do Escrivão Isaias Caminha (Memories of the Clerk Isaías Caminha)

 

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Lima Barreto’s debut novel was received coldly by the critics and the literary community of the time. The resentment of the protagonist-narrator and the sarcastic (although disguised) way in which he describes powerful figures of the contemporary society irritated many people who possibly identified themselves with the characters depicted in the novel and felt ridiculed by it. In the novel, Isaías, a boy from the countryside, does exceptionally well in school and is predicted to have a bright future, due to his intelligence and hard work. As a young man, full of hopes and willing to expand his horizons, he leaves his family and hometown, coming to Rio de Janeiro with a letter of recommendation for a congressman. Isaias thought it would not be difficult to find a good job, given his previous scholarly success and this single connection with a powerful politician. It does not take long, though, for his dreams to be crushed. Rio turns out to be a concrete jungle, where the doors are tightly closed to dark-skinned men. The novel tells the story of the deterioration of the young man’s self-esteem and his progressive submission and passive acceptance of the brutal rules that govern Brazilian society.

  1. The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma

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This novel marks the transition from Realism/Naturalism to the Pre-Modernist literary movement in Brazil.

Policarpo Quaresma, the protagonist, is a methodical civil servant who lives with his spinsterish sister in the suburbs of Rio at the end of the 19th century. He is a naïve and rather optimistic nationalist, who believes that he himself can act as a force to preserve the traditions of Brazil in the face of the fast modernization and internationalization the country is going through.

To accomplish his nationalist objectives, first, he writes a letter to the Parliament proposing that the national language be replaced by Tupi, the indigenous language spoken by the local tribes who lived along the coast of the country before the arrival of the Portuguese. The idea is received with such mockery and disbelief that Quaresma suffers a nervous breakdown, being confined, for a while, to an asylum for the mentally ill.

Recovering from the illness, Quaresma decides to move with his sister to a farm on the outskirts of the city to live a more peaceful life in contact with nature. There, he tries to initiate, again practically single-handedly, an agricultural reform, aiming at setting an example to his countrymen, teaching them how to make the most efficient and rational use of the fertile soil of his beloved fatherland. This results in another failure, as he cannot count on any official help with his endeavour.

Finally, he sides with President Marshal Floriano Peixoto (a real historical figure), joining the military, to fight against the Second Naval Revolt, only to find out that the leader, contrary to Quaresma’s idealization, lacks the brains and military-strategic mind of a Napoleon, being nothing more than an authoritarian and unskilled dictator to a barbaric country in the periphery of civilization and capitalism.

  1. Clara dos Anjos

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Published after Lima Barreto’s death, the novel has a simple and direct plot. It’s the story of a dark-skinned girl from the suburbs (the impoverished neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city of Rio de Janeiro, rarely portrayed in our literature) who gets seduced and abused by the white guitar player Cassi Jones, a notorious crook from a slightly higher social social class. However, the focus of the book is not really the plot. Clara’s sad story is just a pretext for the author to explore important connected issues. The main theme of the novel is the suburbs and its inhabitants: the members of the poorer classes of Brazil. Lima Barreto, with his precise journalistic prose, describes their small and difficult lives, the destitute environment they are forced to live in – despite the high taxes they pay, which are hardly used for their own benefit; the excessive drinking habits of the men; their music and literature; and the repression suffered by their passive and conservative women.

  1. Contos Completos de Lima Barreto (Lima Barreto’s Complete Short Stories)

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Besides journalistic articles and novels, Lima Barreto also left us a great number of short stories. Again, in those works, his main themes are the description of daily life in the city of Rio de Janeiro and its suburbs during the years of the Brazilian Old Republic (the period comprised between the end of 19th century and the beginning of 20th century), written with irony and sharp criticism against the political system of the time, the ingrained racism of our society, the oppression of the lower classes in general and the limitations imposed on women in particular. He also rebuked the mediocrity of the cultural and literary elites of the country. His attempts to mock Brazilian society while denouncing its serious flaws have made a profound mark in our literature.

Would you like to share your opinion about Lima Barreto? Please write your comments below.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six of Batman’s Most Dangerous 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.

Joker: one of the Cape Crusader’s scariest villains. A sadistic clown, with a disturbing grin, 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, Joker has been played by great actors such as Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero. Joaquin Phoenix, in the movie Joker, has given one of the most original and dazzling performances of the villain. One of Joker’s 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.

By Jorge Sette

Steven Pinker: Tips on Writing with Style


Writing is nothing like speaking. People’s brains are wired to produce speech and the process of language acquisition starts immediately after the baby is born. All it takes is exposure to linguistic input. From babbling to fully articulated sentences, we can count on a time span of some four or five years. It’s an effortless and innate ability. An instinct. Writing, on the other hand, is a recent invention in the history of the species. It requires much harder work. It’s a learned skill; it takes more time to master and can be seriously improved through life if you set your mind to it. It will never be complete, though.

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In his brilliant new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Steven Pinker does not aim at beginners. He takes for granted that you can already produce a decent piece of writing and are willing to hone your skills. He claims he will help you do that not by providing a reference guide which you can look up whenever you have a question about punctuation, spelling or grammar. Pinker’s intent is to make the reader reflect on how to improve his writing style.

And why would you want to do that? He comes up with three reasons a writer of any kind – although he focuses on non-fictional texts in the examples he provides – would wish to develop his writing skills:

  1. To achieve clarity (you can make the meaning of your message more rigorous, unambiguous, easier to grasp. Your written instructions, for example, will become less dangerous in certain contexts, if you enhance your style);
  2. To gain trust (readers rely on writers who present themselves as someone who knows his language, its nuances and limitations);
  3. To convey beauty (writing and reading are two of the greatest pleasures of a civilized person: expressing yourself with more precise words, being able to make use of a tad of poetry in your descriptions, coming up with original and impactful metaphors will enchant your reader).

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To accomplish these objectives, Pinker advocates the adoption of what he calls classic style, which replicates the easiness and directness of a conversation and makes the reader see the world as if watching a movie. Classic style avoids abstractions by using examples and concrete language. It shows instances of the phenomena being analyzed, making it as tangible as possible for the reader. Classic style maintains that the purpose of writing is “presentation and its motive is disinterested truth.”

Classic style involves the cooperation of the reader, who will try to fill in the blanks and work to understand what the writer wishes to convey. The reader will contribute his knowledge of the world to complement what the writer is saying, so the latter won’t need to over-contextualize the point he’s trying to get across.‘’Classic writing…makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.”

In addition to classic style, another tenet of Pinker’s theory of good writing is that authors need to balance prescriptive norms and descriptive uses of the language. Only by doing that a writer will sound sophisticated, attentive, intelligible to a larger audience, and, yet, avoid pomposity, fundamentalism and the danger of becoming a stickler for unreasonable norms dictated by orthodox stylistic guides.

What are prescriptive norms? These are traditional and condoned ways of expressing oneself in a language. It’s a set of rules that any good writer must know and, possibly, follow. However, the writer must be aware that these rules were not created by an omnipotent guardian who concocted these norms and keeps them in an inexpugnable fortress. Rules are a product of what past writers and (usually) educated people handed down to the newer generations. But language is in constant evolution, and often, creative writers will bend the rules to achieve specific effects or to avoid misinterpretations that were not taken into consideration before.

Descriptive linguistics, contrastively, deals with how people actually write and speak in real life in a determined place at a certain moment in time. Language is a dynamic and shape-shifting organism. It’s alive. It changes to accommodate new realities and ideas. It cannot and will not be straitjacketed to please the inflexibility of purists.

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Nevertheless, writing cannot be a free for all, where anything goes. Sense is the key word. A consultation of the experts – recognized and trusted writes of present and past, people who express themselves with clarity and beauty – needs to take place. Established rules must be taken into consideration and reflected upon. A consensus is necessary. Pinker’s suggestion of replacing “dogma about usage with reason and evidence” nails the solution to the dilemma.

Therefore, good writers, according to Pinker, are the ones who pay attention and look up. They learn, either systematically or through reading good authors, what are the best ways to express oneself. However, they will not hesitate to bend those rules, coin words, or challenge the linguistic status quo, if they feel this is needed to convey an original thought.

These principles are, in summary, what Steven Pinker champions in his elegant book. However, I will not have time to discuss in this blog post how he does that. I won’t be able to cover his humor, the irony and the encyclopedic knowledge of the English language he imparts in this essential manual. Neither will I mention the delightful examples he picks to make his points; to say nothing of the fact, that, contrary to the objective he stated in the introduction to the book, it will definitely work as a helpful reference guide for most readers.

A must-read for writers or anybody who is either interested in English or works with it (teachers, language students, editors, marketers, academics…), The Sense of Style is a mandatory item in your library.

Jorge Sette.

 

 

5 Most Horrible Moms in Fiction


Most of us think our moms are perfect, angels fallen from heaven. It’s easier to judge other people’s moms. And when these not so pristine mothers are created or described by great writers, they become even more fun to mock or easier to be shocked by. The following characters are horrific mothers portrayed in very well-known stories. Reading about them will make you love your mothers even more, as they will come out on top of any comparison with these pathetic moms:

 

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Margaret White from Carrie (by Stephen King, 1974): a fanatically religious mother who has not taught her daughter – a girl gifted with genetic telekinetic powers – about menstruation or other facts of life until she’s seventeen. At that point she has her first period at the school showers, suffering a terrible episode of bullying from her schoolmates: Carrie thought she was bleeding to death, while the girls cruelly threw sanitary pads at her, yelling “plug it up”. Margaret would keep Carry for hours in a locked closet as punishment whenever she thought her daughter had sinned – which was quite often, as everything was a sin. The story reaches its climax when Carry is crowned Queen of the Spring Prom and has a bucket full of pig blood fall on her head – a prankster that will have terrible consequences for the whole town and for Margaret in particular.

 

 

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Sharon Sedaris from Dress your Family in Corduroy and Denim (by David Sedaris, 2004): Sharon features in most books by the author. In his hilariously self-deprecating autobiographical short stories, comedian David Sedaris depicts his mother in less than flattering ways. Of course, the character is an amplified and bigger-than-life version of the real woman. However, you can tell that, deep down, just like the Simpsons, this is a very dysfunctional but loving family. Sharon is portrayed as an aloof, chain-smoking, couldn’t-give-a-damn kind of mother, totally indifferent to the incipient problems of her young gay son, with his obsessive behavior (translated in nervous tics, such as compulsively licking door knobs!) and his original artistic personality. She also gives her husband a hard time, always making disparaging remarks about his Greek heritage and his ancient off-the-wall mother (the semi-senile Ya Ya), asking him questions such as “when is she going back to Mount Olympus?”

 

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Eva Khatchadourian from We need to talk about Kevin (by Lionel Shriver, 2003): We don’t know how horrible Eva actually is as a mother since we get to hear only her side of the story of how she raised  little difficult Kevin, who grew up to become a mass murderer. The book is a very smart and sophisticated discussion on the origins of evil: are people born that way or do they sometimes get irreparably damaged by the environment? Being an excellent writer, the author slips hints here and there that indicate that Eva may have been the main cause of Kevin’s fall.

 

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Sophie Portnoy from Portnoy’s Complaint(by Philip Roth, 1969): the over sheltering and overbearing archetypical Jewish mother featured in the book is one of the funniest characters ever written by Philip Roth. She’s her son’s source of all love and pain. A typical castrator. The young writer shocked readers worldwide when his iconoclastic book came out in the late 1960s. It replicates the conversations of a young Jewish male with his psychoanalyst. There are a lot of biting comments about the Jewish culture, sex, masturbation, women and the overpowering influence of mothers. The author was branded a misogynist and anti-Semite at the time. Well, it’s known that it takes a very thick skin to become an influential and respected writer, who will not compromise his vision for fear of the public opinion. And Roth happens to be like that – modern-day readers thank him for his bravery 

 

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Medea from Medea, a play by Euripides, who lived around 480 BC: she’s the ultimate bad mother. Medea is a sorceress who helped Jason get the Golden Fleece in the myth of the Argonauts with the objective of marrying him. Now they are foreigners in the city of Corinth, where they’ve been living for more than 10 years, happily married and with two children. Creon, the King of land, however, offers his daughter to Jason, who promptly accepts the proposal. Medea is overcome with fury and jealousy. She pretends to accept Jason’s decision, though, and orders the children to go to Creon’s palace with gifts for the Princess: a robe and a coronet. Only they are covered in poison and kill both the princess and her father. This is not the end of Medea’s insane thirst for revenge: she slays her own kids to make their father suffer. The final scene shows the witch flying off on a carriage pulled by dragons – a present from her godfather, Helios, the god of the sun – taking the corpses of the kids with her.

Despite these evil mothers, those are all great stories which deserve to be read. Why not get started on Mother’s Day? Enjoy.

 

Au revoir

Jorge Sette