10 Cool Questions about Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda – A great love story (for your book club)


Oscar and Lucinda is one of those books that grow in the reader’s mind over time. The unforgettable and powerfully written novel by Peter Carey, winner of the 1988 Man Booker Prize, tells the improbable love story between a religiously obsessed English young man and a compulsive Australian heiress.

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Oscar has a gambling problem. He loves horse races. Lucinda, on the other hand, adores glassworks and cannot resist a game of cards.

Lucinda purchases the oldest Glass Factory in Sydney. The story takes place in the 19th century and culminates with the couple’s joining forces on the biggest (and strangest) bet of their lives: gambling on the transportation of a glass church across the Outback from Sydney to the remote Bellingen, 400 km up the coast of New South Wales. This is certainly one of the most outlandish and beautiful literary visions I’ve come across as a reader in a long, long time.

In 1997, the novel was made into an acclaimed movie directed by Gillian Armstrong, starring Cate Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes.

 

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Cate Blanchett – who plays Lucinda in the movie version.

 

The questions below are fairly open-ended. They are intended to be incorporated into the list of others you are possibly already using during your book club’s sessions. It helps to have a mediator to conduct the discussions. There are no absolute right or wrong answers, so I would recommend the members of the group be flexible, welcoming and respectful of other people’s opinions and interpretations. Enjoy:

1. Where did Oscar live as a child (country, region, city)? Where did Lucinda live as a child (country, region, city)?

2. Why did Oscar start moving away from his father’s religion to become an Anglican?

3. What did Oscar do for a living? What about Lucinda?

4. Where/When did Oscar and Lucinda first meet? And what was Oscar’s greatest fear at that point?

5. What feelings developed when they decided to play cards for the first time, and how did the storm change the situation?

6. How did Oscar morally reconcile religion and gambling?

7. How does a Glassworks or glass factory reflect Lucinda’s own personality?

8. Would you consider Lucinda a feminist ahead of her time? Give us three examples of her behavior in the story that would justify this idea.

9. What is the passage (or passages) in the novel that will probably linger in the readers’ minds after they’ve finished it?

10. If you were Peter Carey, the author, list three things you would have changed about the novel before it was published. Your answer can be about the characters, the plot, the location, the times or the ending.

Choose a couple of the questions above and answer them in writing in the comments space below, if you wish.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

 

 

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What do Classic Novels have in Common?


Classic novels and the Western Canon (Shakespeare, Swift, Cervantes, Austen, Dickens, Flaubert, Melville, etc.) are sometimes used as synonyms. In this post, however, we apply a broader definition to the former, extending the concept to a certain category of written stories that may have originated in any part of the world, as long as they sustain the set of common characteristics we discuss here.

In his famous 1986 short essay, “Why Read the Classics?” Italian journalist and writer Italo Calvino gives an all-encompassing and powerful definition of classic novels:

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

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Italo Calvino

We couldn’t agree more. In addition to that, we would argue that classic novels share the following traits:

Language: One of the main features of classic books is the careful use of the language they employ, which leans towards the innovative, the unique and the artistic (meaning: evocative, non-referential language that stands in its own right, for its beauty or unconventionality). The classics normally establish new standards of language use; they formalize in writing what was once only oral, for example. Classic writers create new linguistic facts: expressions, words, metaphors. They coin new lexicon

Originality: Classics convey new perspectives and worldviews; they provide groundbreaking insights into the human experience. They change the way readers see the universe. When reading the classics, we sometimes discover where certain ideas came from, who first expressed them. We realize that people didn’t always have the same feelings their contemporaries share about things and that sometimes it’s possible to pinpoint the specific moment the innovative thought was introduced.

Freshness: Classics are books that can be reinterpreted over and over again. They adapt effortlessly to new eras and offer a lens through which different realities can be analyzed. Pride and Prejudice is not read today in the same way as was when first published in 1813. Modern readers add layers of new personal and communal meanings to their interpretation of the original text, experiencing it in completely novel but still relevant ways.

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Seminal: Classics inform and influence innumerable artworks and ideas. Contemporary movies, TV series, and literature, for example, are constantly borrowing and repurposing the themes, characters, plots, and even the language of the classics. Who doubts that Jaws (both the book and movie versions) is a modern-day Moby Dick?

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Moby Dick

Longevity: They endure and remain in print. The strength of their plots, the charisma of their characters, and the essentiality of their ideas get handed down from one generation of readers to the next. They resonate with the reader in primeval and timeless ways. You will probably find an edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wildein most bookstores you walk into around the globe.

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Oscar Wilde

Eternal truths and grand themes: Classics deal with what is essential to human beings. They identify universal feelings and behaviors, incorporating these archetypical entities into specific contexts, which make them more palpable and understandable.

Identity: Because classics tend to represent the zeitgeist of their times in such accurate and interesting ways, they become part of the very fabric of shared culture.

As you will have noticed, our criteria for identifying classic novels is flexible and can be rather subjective. Ultimately, given the extraordinary number of great books available today (from all kinds of times and regions), it’s necessary for the reader to establish their personal library of classics. Everyone has their own list of favorites: books that have changed their lives; books that helped them through difficult times; books that are relevant to them in unique ways; books that marked important moments. These are classics too – on an individual level.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

Velázquez – The Iconic Painter of the Spanish Baroque


Considered the painter’s painter, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez was born in Seville in 1599, growing up in the old Jewish quarter of that booming city.

Velázquez was an apprentice to Sevillian artist Francisco Pacheco for 5 years. However, it did not take long for the pupil to surpass the master in technique, which did not bother Pacheco at all. He was very proud of the young artist, who would later become his son-in-law. At the age of 19, Velázquez married Pacheco’s daughter, Juana, and had two daughters by her.

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Velázquez

In 1623, he was invited to go to Madrid to paint the portrait of King Philip IV. The king liked the painting so much he commanded Velázquez to became his personal painter. From then on, only Velázquez was allowed to paint the king, and all his other portraits were taken out of circulation. Later on, Velázquez rose in the court to also become the king’s curator (being the person in charge of choosing and purchasing the furniture and paintings that would decorate the king’s palaces). Velázquez served the king for over 40 years, while Philip IV was the most powerful man on Earth.

At the beginning of his career, Velázquez soon distanced himself from the usual religious themes most Spanish painters produced at the time, due to the influence and power of the Catholic Church, and the overwhelming surveillance of the Spanish Inquisition. Instead, he started painting bodegones – kitchen and tavern scenes, involving common people – which, despite being considered a low genre of painting in those days, started to attract the attention of rich purchasers and patrons. Among these paintings, we have, for example, Old Woman Frying Eggs, and the breathtaking Water Seller.

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Old Woman Frying Eggs

His art was clearly influenced by Caravaggio in his use of contemporary, common people as models, and also in the use of the dramatic contrasts of light and shadow (chiaroscuro). Another major influence on Velázquez’s work was the art of Flemish baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, who spent seven months at the court of King Philip IV on a diplomatic mission. Later, after spending time in Italy on two different occasions, he incorporated elements of both the contemporary local art and features of the Renaissance into his technique.

When he began working for King Philip IV, his main assignments consisted of portraits. He painted the members of the royal family in a great number of portraits, but his most famous ones are his own slave and studio assistant Juan de Pareja’s and the stunning portrait of Pope Innocent X. The realism and strength of these works, in which Velázquez managed to capture not only the physical but also the personality traits of his models, astonished his contemporaries and are a source of awe and inspiration to many artists to this day. Since most of Velázquez’s works were made for the king, they remained unseen for many years, hanging from the private walls of the royal family’s many residences.

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Pope Innocent X

In addition to the bodegones and portraits, he also produced famous mythological scenes (e.g. The Triumph of Baccus; Vulcan’s Forge; The Spinners; The Rokeby Venus), landscapes (e.g. Philip IV Hunting Wild Boar) and historical scenes (e.g. The Surrender of Breda).

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Vulcan’s Forge

Velázquez’s technique, draftsmanship and use of color have amazed the general public, critics and other painters for centuries. He’s many people’s candidate for the post of best painter ever. His paintings are included in what is called the Spanish Baroque movement of the XVII century, but they stand out as very personal and unique, the work of a genius.

Velázquez struggled his whole life to become part of the nobility he served so faithfully. His Jewish blood, however, was a constant obstacle for him to achieve such recognition. Only at the very end of his life, in 1658, did he become a knight, receiving the insignia of the Military Order of Santiago, the red cross that features on his chest in his most famous painting Las Meninas.

Velázquez died on August 6th, 1660, at the age of 61.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

What makes historical novels great…


Historical novels are made-up stories written around real facts that took place in a significant time period.  One of the premises of this popular literary genre is that the author’s contemporary times and the period reflected in the plot must be separated from a distance of at least 25 (others will say 50) years. Good examples of effective historical fiction are the Booker Prize winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, which look back and offer a perspective on Henry VIII’s court in sixteenth century England.

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However, if you take a book like Tom Wolf’s The Bonfire of the Vanities – a very sophisticated and entertaining study of New York City during the 1980s  –  it cannot be considered historical fiction, since the novel was written around the same time as the period it depicts.  For the same reason, books like Jane EirePride and Prejudice or Great Expectations are not historical fiction either.  They were simply novels which were written in the past.

Historical novels may mix real facts, people and situations with fictional ones.

What are the prerequisites of great historical fiction?

  1. They are based on extensive and careful research. Although we can’t expect historical fiction authors to be historians, they will need to have an accurate sense of the period they are focusing on. To write a simple scene in one of these books, writers will have to know, for example, the kinds of clothes people wore; the objects they used; their language; the political and social context; how they celebrated their holidays; what parties they went to; what was their religion, and a lot more. Therefore, authors of historical novels must carry out a lot of research to be able to sound convincing about the times they are depicting.

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  1. The focus is on storytelling. Authors need to keep in mind they’re not writing a history manual, though. The research only helps to build the context where a story will be developed. The most important part of their job is the creation of an exciting plot; the development of well-rounded characters (which may or may not be real); their ability to infuse the text with the right atmosphere; their craft to play with language; to promote what all great literature does: a discussion or reflection on what makes human beings tick when put in certain situations.

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  1. Authors use creative ways of exploiting historical gaps. It takes leaps of imagination to write historical novels. Successful writers of the genre will have to fill in historical gaps (like what people say in private, their feelings, their motives, etc.) with interesting information. Part of this information will be inferred and some of it will be invented.

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  1. The story is preceded by an Author’s Note. The reader shouldn’t be deceived. The author’s note will explain what in their story is based on facts and what is purely fiction. Writers will clarify what poetic licenses were taken in the book.  Also they should make explicit what is the scope of the historical information applied.

 

  1. Authors take the opportunity to discuss contemporary issues. Historical fiction can be used as a powerful way to discuss current issues. Although they narrate specific events that happened in past as context, the best historical novels offer an interesting angle on contemporary or timeless themes, such as the position of women and other minorities in society; the fairness of the social and political system; interpretations regarding the role and nature of human beings; the importance of religion and mythology, etc.

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Historical novels – especially the ones that abide by the principles we listed above –  are becoming  even more popular these days.

What are your favorite historical fiction novels? Please use the comments section below to let us know.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

Impressionism – A Cautionary Tale


Impressionism is one of the most popular movements of Western Art. It took place between 1870 and 1880, mainly in France, and suffered a lot of resistance at the beginning, since critics, art dealers and the public in general were more used to the academic and “serious” kinds of paintings that would hang from the walls of the official Salón, a very popular government-sponsored art exhibition that took place every year in France.

The typical paintings you would see at the Salón would feature religious, historic or mythological subjects. They would follow the guidelines of realistic art set by the Renaissance and followed by most masters for almost 500 years. The paintings looked subdued in the use of color, valued good draftsmanship and had strict rules of perspective. In addition to that, they were perfectly finished and varnished.

The impressionists started to systematically deconstruct these rules.

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Coquelicots (Poppies At Argenteuil) by Monet, Claude, 1873.

The artists

Monet is considered the quintessential Impressionist painter. The one who practically set the rules and followed them to the very end of his long and productive career. Other famous impressionists were Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Morisot, and Pissarro. They had been heavily influenced by pre-impressionists, like Manet and Courbet, whose art was already moving away from the standards of classic realism.

The technique

Today you will hardly come across someone who does not like Impressionism. The main reason is that Impressionist paintings are usually uplifting, colorful and full of light. They are cheerful works that make most people feel good. Composed of short, broken, brush strokes, in unmixed bright colors, Impressionist art works conveyed how reality appears to us under different light conditions. They avoid rigid contours or lines, drawing was secondary to the use of color. Shadows were never black, but painted in darker hues of colors, which varied throughout the day and in accordance to the season of the year. For more traditional eyes, the paintings can sometimes look rather unfinished.

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Two Sisters (On the Terrace) by Renoir, Pierre-Auguste, 1881.

The origin of the name

In a 1874 exhibition, Monet presented a painting called Impression: Sunrise (see image below). All it showed was a couple of solitary boats on the sea in Le Havre under a red sun reflected on the water. It was painted in quick, diffused, brush strokes. The art critic Louis Leroy, from the magazine Charivari, was not happy with what he saw. He fiercely mocked the artists that painted like Monet and used the very title of the painting to criticize their style, claiming they were mere impressionists. His paintings, Leroy said, looked more like sketches than finished works of art. Despite the derogatory use of the word, Monet and his friends boldly appropriated the name and started to use it officially to define their revolutionary new style. Impressionism had been born.

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Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) by Monet, Claude, 1872.

Where the paintings were made

Usually impressionists would paint en plein air, meaning the outdoors. This is where they could best capture the effects of the changing light on trees, flowers, people and water. Some of them would sometimes finish their work indoors, but hardliners, such as Monet, would work outside every day, under different weather conditions, completing their works there.

 The subject matter

Impressionists would do landscapes, seascapes , portraits and still life paintings. But they hardly included anything outstanding. Their themes were scenes and items of everyday reality: moments of contemporary Parisian life, flowers, boats, expanses of water, sunsets…The simpler, the better. Their point was to study and convey how color worked under light. You need to step back from an impressionistic painting at a museum to fully appreciate what it’s all about as a whole. The closer you get, the more the image gets fragmented into singular dabs and brush strokes without specific forms or meaning.

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Sand Heaps by Sisley, Alfred, 1875.

Impressionism is at the very beginning of what we call Modern Art. Those painters influenced strongly all the art movements that followed them, such as fauvism, cubism and surrealism. Impressionist paintings sell for millions of dollars today. It’s hard to believe that they were once discriminated against and frowned upon. Monet lived in poverty for great party of his life until he was recognized as a great innovator.

There’s perhaps a cautionary tale there. The value and importance of contemporary art is almost never acknowledged at its inception. So, perhaps we should hold our judgment when confronted with some new form of Art and try to understand what it really means and learn to identify the possible seeds of radical transformation we are witnessing.

How do you feel about Impressionism? Do you have any favorite painters or works in the movement? Please, let us know.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

 

10 Interesting Facts about Clarice Lispector: One of the Greatest Brazilian Writers of All Time


Writing in Portuguese makes it difficult for many Brazilian authors to gain worldwide recognition. Besides, a large portion of our literature focuses on issues such as the investigation of Brazilian identity, as well as explorations of local values and culture, which makes it, perhaps, less relevant for readers from other countries.

Things seem to be changing, however.  Acclaimed Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar, for example, was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize for A Cup of Rage,published in Brazil in 1978.

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Clarice Lispector has always been an exception: a Brazilian writer known around the world. One of the reasons for this is that the plots and characters of her novels are far from traditional; Lispector’s characters tend to embark on nuanced interior journeys, exploring incredibly complex worlds. Nothing much happens in terms of action or the development of typical character arcs. Her books throw a unique light on different aspects of the human nature. If the stream of consciousness she often uses can make her prose somewhat hermetic and more challenging to read, it also allows her stories to travel internationally more easily.

However, even those who enjoy her work may not know the following facts about the famous author:

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1. Clarice Lispector was said to look like Marlene Dietrich and write like Virginia Woolf. Her Eastern European looks were indeed striking and uncommon in Brazil. Her family had migrated to Brazil after the First World War, fleeing the pogroms against Jews in the region.

2. Her mother was raped in Ukraine during one of those pogroms and consequently contracted syphilis, which led to her untimely death a couple of decades later. It looks like Clarice was conceived as a possible attempt to cure the disease (a common superstition in those days claimed that giving birth to a child could cure the infection). Of course, this did not have the intended effect, and Clarice carried the burden of guilt for not having been able to save her mother for the rest of her life. Motherhood, or the lack thereof, is a recurring theme in her stories.

3. She was brought up in Recife, a city in the northeast of Brazil, where she went to one of the best public schools in the region, Ginásio Pernambucano. She was 14 when her family finally moved to Rio.

4. Clarice Lispector spent much of her life living in different countries and cities, as the wife of diplomat Maury Gurgel Valente. She lived in Naples, Bern, and Washington, among other places. Her natural intelligence, beauty, and cultivated manners, together with the experience of living in different parts of the world, made her of one of the most sophisticated women of her time.

5. Clarice had two sons: Pedro and Paulo. Pedro was so precocious that he learned the maid’s local dialect in Switzerland in a couple of days, frightening his parents. However, this was an early indicator of mental problems, and later on, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

6. Clarice was not a very political person, although she was aware of and hurt by the injustices and inequalities she observed in her adopted country. During the beginning of the hardest of the dictatorship years in Brazil, in the late 60s, she took part in demonstrations and spoke out against the military coup.

7. Close friends claim that Clarice was a lonely and difficult woman, especially after she left her husband in the late 50s and decided to live with her sons in Rio. She was addicted to sleeping pills, but when she couldn’t sleep she would call her friends to discuss her personal problems at all times of day or night.

8. Clarice survived a fire started when she fell asleep with a lit cigarette in her hand. At this time she lived in an apartment in Leme, a stretch of beach close to the fashionable Copacabana of the 1960s. The third-degree burns left her badly scarred for life, especially her right hand – which she used for writing!

9. Clarice had a totally modern and original way of writing. Themes related to motherhood, as well as reflections on how she missed her own mother, figured largely in her work. Her ideas were heavily influenced by the philosopher Spinoza and the language she used made her an extraordinarily creative and original writer.

10. She wrote nine books, a play, a number of short stories, and some children’s literature. She was also a journalist and had columns in important Brazilian newspapers, where she usually wrote crônicas (a typically Brazilian genre, in which authors narrate facts about simple daily experiences in interesting and original ways) or dispensed advice for women readers, under her own name or pen names. She died of ovarian cancer in 1977 at age 57.

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Have you ever read any of the works of the brilliant writer? Share your opinions with us.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Makes Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn So Great?


Mark Twain’s watershed novel has been one of the most controversial and disputed pieces of literature ever since its publication in 1884. Describing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ernest Hemingway once said:

“American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

Many, however, would vehemently disagree with that statement. While readers from one camp call it “the Great American Novel,” others – including writer Louisa May Alcott – condemn its supposed lack of artistry, the use of vulgar language, and even claim it’s racist. To this day, it’s frequently banned in a number of schools in the US on the grounds that it corrupts youth.

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In this post, we want to explore the motives of the supportive camp. After all, those who love this novel can’t get enough of it. Why? Here’s a brief summary followed by a list of the most appealing traits of the book.

Summary:

For those who are not familiar with this famous novel, it’s the sequel to the simpler and more child-friendly The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In the first book, the protagonist is Tom, who lives in the fictitious town of St. Petersburg (inspired by the real city of Hannibal, Missouri) on the Mississippi river in the 1830s.

Tom is an imaginative kid, who leads a regular life, goes to the local school and lives with his younger brother Sid and his cousin Mary under the vigilant and protective eyes of Aunt Polly, his dead mother’s sister. Although Tom and Huck (short for Huckleberry) are best friends, the latter, as the son of the abusive town’s drunk, lives a completely deregulated life, playing and roaming the streets of St. Petersburg in total freedom. He is obviously the envy of all the other kids in the region. At the end of the book, after taking part in a number of adventures throughout the narrative, Tom and Huck get rich, having discovered a great amount of money stolen and hidden in a cave by a gang of robbers. The well-to-do and religious Widow Douglas, one of the town’s luminaries, becomes then Huck’s guardian, with the job of “sivilizing” him.

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At the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we learn that 13-year-old Huck cannot stand the civilized life he’s living at Widow Douglas’s house. He finds the clothes uncomfortable, the table manners constrictive, and the school lessons boring. Moreover, he doesn’t understand or agree with all the religious moralism inflicted on him by the authoritarian widow’s sister, Miss Watson. At this point, he gets kidnapped by his father, who wants to get his hands on the kid’s money. Huck is forced to live with him in a shack across the river.

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Huck realizes he has no choice: he must either submit to living with his abusive father or go back to the horrors of the so-called civilized life under the righteous wing of Widow Douglas. So he decides to fake his own murder and run away. As he tries to escape, Huck bumps into Miss Watson’s black slave Jim, who is also running away, having heard that his mistress is planning to sell him. They get a raft and start floating down the Mississippi river on their way to freedom. Wherever that may be. The novel is the story of that journey.

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The Metaphors:

One of the most enchanting aspects of the novel is Twain’s powerful use of metaphors and symbols. The motif of man in close contact with water – be it sea or river – and its associated subconscious meanings is common in Western literature (take Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, The Old Man and the Sea, and Life of Pi, for example). The monstrous big Mississippi River in Twain’s novel is also said to stand for a pagan God, both good and evil, leading and interfering with the minute lives that dare to float on its waters; the many storms in the novel seem to be prophetic, signalling approaching turmoil and difficulties. Life on the raft sums up the benefits and downsides of freedom (wild, unconfined and dangerous), in contrast to the oppressive civilized life Huck got to know for a while.

The Innovative Language: 

With The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for the first time North American literature breaks away from the limitations of formal and pompous language. The story is told by Huck in his own particular vernacular, which replicates oral language. Ungrammatical sentences and misspellings highlight the expressive force and energy of regional dialects. In the introduction to the novel, Mark Twain explains his linguistic choices:

“In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.”

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Humor:

Despite its deep themes (the distorted values of civilization, the hypocrisy of the official religion, inequality, and freedom), the novel pulses with satire. Among the hilarious passages, we’d pinpoint: the description of local superstitions (the bad luck that touching a rattlesnake’s skin can bring about, for example); Jim’s fear of spirits in the fog and of witches in the woods; Huck’s inability to pretend he’s a girl in an encounter with a newcomer to the town; Huck and Jim’s endless discussions about the French language, the wisdom of King Solomon, and the lifestyle of kings.

The Beauty of Descriptive Passages:

The book does not want for poetic strength, as it describes life on a raft, dawn on the river, or a big storm in progress:

“Pretty soon it darkened up and begun to thunder and lighten; so the birds was right about it. Directly it begun to rain, and it rained like all fury, too, and I never see the wind blow so. It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest—FST! it was as bright as glory and you’d have a little glimpse of tree-tops a-plunging about, away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before.”

Huck’s charisma: 

The protagonist is a very likable character: good-hearted, loyal and sensitive. Most readers can identify with his rebellion against the constraints of civilization and the moral dilemma he goes through as he’s helping set Jim free. After all, the events narrated in the story take place long before the American Civil War and the official abolition, in a time when the act of helping to free a slave was illegal and against the established social and moral order. This is how Twain verbalizes the main point of the story:

“A book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat”.

However one feels towards The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after reading it, rest assured that it is very unlikely they will remain INDIFFERENT to the experience.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

Writing Powerful Comic Book Characters


In his extraordinarily insightful and funny book, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, author Scott McCloud states that comics is (yes, the verb is used in the singular!) a 3000-year-old sequential art form. More precisely, he defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” In modern times, however, the medium has mostly been used to combine pictures and words in the telling of stories.

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Since we are in the realm of storytelling, we must necessarily allude to the seminal works of Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey) to advise writers on how to go about creating strong characters. Given the limited space of this blog post, we will not be covering the visual aspects of comics here.

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Comics – sometimes called graphic novels, when not serialized but released as a standalone volume – is a medium, not a genre. As a writer, you must therefore stick to the set conventions (again, beyond the scope of this post) of the style of the work you are producing: be it romance, satire, horror, sci-fi, fantasy or superhero story. The guidelines for character creation that follow apply to all of those genres.

The Characters

Writers who populate their stories with archetypes resonate a lot more deeply with their audiences. Archetypes – as defined by the famous psychologist Carl Jung – are characters or energies that represent mental functions common to all human beings. They are part of what is known as the collective unconscious and are projections of the different parts that together constitute a complete person, though they tend to appear as individual characters in a story. Let’s illustrate our analysis of the main archetypes used in graphic novels with examples from Marvel’s popularSpider-Man: Season One.

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The Hero

The hero is the story’s protagonist. It is through his/her eyes that the audience experiences the story. It’s therefore essential to create engaging characters that the reader can identify with. An effective way to do that is to make the character well-rounded. Popular heroes tend to balance noble qualities with major flaws. It’s essential to avoid passivity in heroes. They are more appealing when they proactively conduct their journey.

In Spider Man, this is, of course, the part of Peter Parker.

The Herald

The herald is the character, institution, or event that announces the upcoming adventure; he/she anticipates the need for the hero to leave his normal world (or the stable situation he finds himself in) and go on a mission. The herald is the bearer of disturbing news. Wrongs must be righted and only the hero can take on this responsibility.

The article on the Vulture’s sightings in New York, featured in the Daily Bugle, sets off the action in Spider-Man: Season One.

The Mentor

In Joseph Campbell’s words, a mentor is usually represented by the wise old man or woman. But, of course, any character, of any age, can perform this function in the story. The mentor helps the hero out, by example or advice. He plays the hero’s role model.

Uncle Ben plays the mentor in Spider-Man.

The Shadow

Here we have the enemy. The hero’s arch nemesis. The personification of the hero’s worst fears. It’s said that the shadow may also reflect what heroes don’t like about themselves, their dark side.

In Spider-Man: Season One, this function is obviously performed by The Vulture.

Threshold Guardians

Threshold guardians are gatekeepers who are always testing the hero on their progress towards their goal. They guard the doors that will allow the hero to enter a more evolved phase. They might be confronted head-on or have their energies tapped into by the hero. Sometimes they happen to turn into allies.

Flash Thomson, one of Peter Parker’s bullying schoolmates, is undeniably a gatekeeper in Spider-Man: Season One. The editor-in-chief of the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson, is another formidable threshold guardian.

The Trickster

These characters challenge the status quo; they provide comic relief (which is necessary to break the otherwise unbearable tension of a suspenseful story). Tricksters put things into perspective.

Peter Parker himself can be thought of as a trickster hero in Spider Man.

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It’s important not to forget that the archetypes listed above perform key dramatic functions in any story. Therefore, two or more of these masks can be worn by the same character at different points in the narrative.

This is all we have time for today. Good luck with the creation of powerful characters in your graphic novel. Let us know if the advice above is useful to you.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

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.