10 Major Benefits of Reading


Reading is one of the great pleasures of life. It’s an acquired taste, though. It doesn’t develop naturally. The habit of reading starts at home. Kids will probably develop a liking to books eventually, if they see their parents reading; if there are shelves with books around; if they are allowed to spend time in libraries and bookstores just playing with and touching books; or if they are read to by their caretakers. I grew up among books, and many people in my family read for pleasure, so, for me, it was easier to tackle the complex task of going through words and sentences and trying to make sense of them. It gets better and easier with practice.

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In addition to giving pleasure, there are many other proven benefits associated with reading. Here are some of them:

1. It’s entertaining. Reading is a wonderful and relatively cheap hobby. It helps you pass the time; it takes your mind off problems; it’s relaxing. You go places and meet interesting people in the stories you read.

2. Books can be mentors.  It’s said that to develop a professional skill or hone a natural talent, one needs coaching and mentoring. Not everyone can get these services. Great leaders, artists and people who stand out in their jobs and careers have always been mentored. Books can take this role. If you don’t have access to a human mentor, read their written words. Buy his/her biography. Books will even give you the opportunity to follow a number of mentors and get from them what suits you better. Vicarious experience can be a great source of learning.

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3. Reading improves your creativity.  Of course, the most direct consequence of reading is improving your writing skills. There’s nothing like exposure to good writing to put you in the right direction of writing well and more creatively. But reading also opens many other doors in your brain: You develop new perspectives and insights. You add new knowledge to what you had accumulated before and.. bang!…all of a sudden you come up with a super original idea. Innovation leads to success.

4. You will never feel lonely again. Have you ever travelled alone? Maybe not as a hobby, but, sometimes, you need to do that for work. And it can be very lonely. If you like reading, books will be friends you can take along with you wherever you go: Especially now, when you can have your whole library on your smartphone or tablet,  being able to download a new title at the touch of a button.

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5. Reading can be a life-changing experience. Some books have such a profound impact on people that they actually change the course of their lives. They give you such new angles on things, you decide to behave in a different way or start something new. They may make you go to another country; start a new career; decide to take a course on a new subject, change your investment plans (thousands of people have, for example, reported how the personal finance book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki, has changed the way they think about their future).

6. Reading makes you smarter. It affects your brain in very powerful ways, creating new synapses (connections), improving your memory, broadening your attention span. Reading is the best brain workout. Great leaders are readers and this should say enough about how the activity boosts the powers of your mind.

7. Studies have indicated that reading can be a strong protection against the onset of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. It looks like the exercise brains go through when submitted to the effort of decoding, processing and linking words, making sense of passages and connecting them with what was read before acts as a shield against those conditions.

8. Reading reduces stress. It changes your mental context, makes your focus on something other than your most immediate worries; calms you down, and helps improve your general health.

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9. In the context of foreign language learning, reading is the most powerful skill in acquiring a new language. Reading in the target language – starting with simplified, graded readers and progressively moving on to unabridged books – is the strongest way to consolidate the grammar, vocabulary and linguistic functions you have been studying, as you observe them being used communicatively in its natural context.

10. Books will make you a better person. Reading about other people’s problems and lives, be them fictional or real; learning about how other people feel and see the world; exposing yourself to different dreams, passions, and aspirations; all this opens up your mind and boosts your empathy. As a result, you become a lot more tolerant of diversity and turn into a more evolved human being.

Are there any other benefits you would like to add to this list? Please feel free to write your comments below.

Jorge Sette.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Become a Better Reader in 11 Steps


First, let me explain what I mean by becoming a better reader. It does not mean to read faster, but to read more often and more efficiently. I know it may sound contradictory, but reading faster and reading better are not the same thing. As a matter of fact, reading better means reading more slowly: in the sense that you put more time in savoring every word of the book, appreciate and reread sentences, try to decipher the deepest meanings of a novel; reading slowly also means to understand and reflect on the author’s views, if you are reading non-fiction, and decide if you agree with them or not. What motivated the author to write his/her piece? What is he/she really trying to say? Is the plot the most important element or just a gimmick to sustain interesting characters and what they represent?

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Here are a few tips to improve your reading process:

1. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t finish every book you start. Read for pleasure and fun. If you have read, let’s say, 20 pages into a book and the story (or the material) still doesn’t hold any real interest, why go on? Quit it and get something more pleasant.

2. On the other hand, make time to read more serious or difficult books (once a day or a week, maybe). It’s important to stretch your reading skills. So, now and then, make an effort to read beyond your proficiency level or your sphere of interest. You will develop as a reader and find it progressively easier to tackle harder texts. And the payoff will be huge.

3. Try audiobooks. Especially the ones you suspect you will never find the energy to read. Listening can be great in situations in which you are doing mechanical things and cannot use your hands to hold a book or another reading device (such as driving, or riding a bike, or commuting on a bumpy road – some people get nauseous if they read even while moving smoothly on a train or bus, for example). I live in a city with some of the worst traffic jams on the planet. I don’t know what I would do without my precious audiobooks.

4. Keep informed about interesting books: readers’ lists; publishing staff’s picks; lists of the 100 best books ever in different categories; books which have won prizes (the Booker Prize and the Pulitzer prize winners or shortlisted books are a sure way of getting great recommendations for your future read).

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5. Make time for skimming. To read better, there’s no need to apply your full concentration every time you pick a book or magazine. Practice skimming: going through a number of articles in print or electronic format just to get the gist, the main idea. This is an excellent way to acquire a reading habit or develop your reading strategies.

6. Join a book club. Being part of a group of readers will give you structure and will help you keep the interest and motivation. It adds accountability to the process, so you will feel the pressure to get it done, so you are able to discuss the assigned chapters in the next meeting.

7. Reread: there is no need to read new stuff all the time. Reread your favorite books as often as you wish. They are a tried and tested source of pleasure. Besides, you will always find something new; a passage or sentence you either don’t remember or hadn’t noticed before. When I reread books I first read years or decades ago, I’m usually surprised at how much I missed the first time around: I was younger and did not have the necessary maturity to grasp all the richness of the material.

8. Write your impressions about the books you are reading. Keep a journal. Highlight and write notes about your favorite passages on the page itself (remember you can add notes to ebooks as well!). Ask yourself questions about the book and try answering them. Some books already bring ready-made comprehension questions to help structure the reading process. Answer them in writing.

9. Try different genres, do not limit yourself to what you already know or like. You will be surprised at the new possibilities of discovery this will open.

10. Always carry books with you: in print or e-format. I usually travel with at least one paperback, in print format, and my whole ebook library on my iPhone. I’m terrified at the prospect of having free time and nothing available to read.

11. See a movie version of the book you are planning to read to make it more palatable. Now that you have the context, it may be easier to cope with the heavier language of the book.

I would love to hear your own strategies and tips on how to read better. Would you share them with us, please?

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

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.

 

 

 

Stephen King Teaches Us How To Write Well


Writing is a very personal (and messy) activity. Effective writers do not necessarily follow the same writing process. Besides, writing can be difficult and painful. According to a well-known quote by Hemingway, There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Having said that, I firmly believe that a beginning writer can benefit from some guidelines and tips, before developing his own writing method, style, and voice. I like to teach my language students the basic steps of a methodology called process writing, which puts the drafting at the center, rather than the final product. The more drafts a writer produces, the better. Of course, you need to know that beyond a certain point, your writing can begin to deteriorate, so it takes practice to develop the gut feeling of when to stop working on a certain piece. A good editor can help you with that. If you want to know more about process writing, please refer to a previous post I wrote on the topic: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1ot

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In his best selling manual ON WRITING, author Stephen King draws on his long and productive experience as a successful fiction writer to give us some help on how to write well. Besides being very interesting, as the author mixes anecdotes of his personal life and backstage accounts of how some of his most famous books came to life, this manual also works as a very useful introductory guide on how to write effectively. I’ve selected five of his best tips to share with you and took the liberty to add my personal comments to his suggestions. But you must read his book for a more comprehensive idea of the subject. His pieces of advice are mainly about fiction, but I believe many of his points apply to good writing in general

 

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1. Read a lot and write a lot. Stephen King recommends you spend at least 4 to 6 hours a day either reading or writing. He says he aims for writing 2,000 words a day. But this piece of advice varies from author to author. I heard Lionel Shriver, another famous writer, say that she sticks to 1,000 words a day. Malcolm Gladwell, in his brilliant book Outliers, claims that to achieve world-class mastery in any field, one needs to dedicate some 10,000 hours to it. He uses The Beatles, the lawyer Joseph Flom, Bill Gates and other successful people as examples. This is a hard call, but I thought I should be honest with you and warn you about the work ahead if you wish to become a star.

 

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2. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered. Philip Roth, considered by many on of the greatest American authors, stirred controversy, shock and strong criticism within the Jewish community when he published his first books. By the end of the 60s, he wrote an outrageously funny novel about a man obsessed with masturbation, which definitely put him on the black list of polite, civilized people with good taste. You can’t write to please. You write to express your truth, to reveal the hypocrisy of your community, to probe into the souls of real human beings. This is likely to cause you trouble. Salmon Rushdie spent decades in hiding, threatened to be killed, after allegedly insulting the members of the Muslim faith. This is a very high price to pay. Wearing the pleasant social masks most people don’t hesitate to put on and being a genuine and respected writer are incompatible. Are you prepared to deal with it?

3. Most of us do our best in a place of our own. I beg to disagree. Most of my writing is done in public cafés and bistros. The presence of pulsating, vibrant life around me gets my creative juices going and helps me put my ideas down on paper. However, I agree that you need to isolate yourself mentally, if not physically, to be able to produce effective writing. If you can’t do that in public, find a nice office, or a room, furnish it with everything you need to write well and close that door. You should be able to concentrate and avoid interruptions wherever you are.

4. A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me.The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question. It looks like Stephen King tends to start his stories from a situation he imagined. He often conjures what-if scenarios to come up with something compelling and unusual. What-if can boost a whole lot of interesting ideas in the brainstorming phase of writing. Not every writer does that, though. An alternative is to start from a different, unique character from whom the story will stem and possibly take unpredictable turns. Most Hollywood scriptwriters use yet another method: they start by outlining and putting a firm structure in place. They think in terms of plot, with defined turning points, clearly delineated phases the hero goes through, character arcs and an edifying end. If you are interested in finding out more about how to write scripts following the Hollywood model, I would recommend Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythical Structure for Writers, based on the mythological studies of Joseph Campbell, presented in the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

 

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5.Description begins in the writer’s imagination but should finish in the reader’s. Don’t over describe. Detailed descriptions are boring for most contemporary readers. All the author needs to do is to apply some quick brush strokes highlighting the main elements of a setting or the physical traits of a character. The reader will be happy to use his imagination to fill in the blanks. Pick important details that help the reader construct the whole on his own. Don’t spoon-feed the reader.

All these tips can be of help to the budding writer, but, as I explained at the beginning of this post, writing is a very idiosyncratic activity and it will take you some time to find and develop your own tools. In addition to that, remember, you need to put in at least 10,000 hours of hard work if you wish to break through the clutter and become a star, according to Malcolm Gladwell. No time to waste then, start today!

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

 

 

 

The Six Pillars of Horror


What makes a great horror story? Of course, many people will argue that the answer is self-evident. There’s not much to analyze; you just sense it. The reader feels their heart pounding fast; a cold sweat dampening their hands; a shiver down their spine. Suddenly, they’re afraid to turn the page, their ears prick up at the faintest noises around them.

These are the reactions that reading a great horror book bring about, but they only tell half the story. To get the full picture, we must identify what it is in the book that causes these feelings of anxiety, discomfort, fear, and excitement!

The most powerful horror books are sustained by the following pillars:

1.The Familiar Made Strange

It’s terrifying when something close to the reader or the character starts to look or act differently. The more familiar the setting, the greater the impact on the reader if it is twisted. This is what happens in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis; Gregor Samsa, the main character, wakes up one day in the comfort of his own bedroom to find out he’s become a disgusting insect-like monster. His family and coworkers will have to deal with it.

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2.Tapping into the Reader’s Darkest Fears

Mothers, for example, are terrified at the prospect of something going wrong with their children. How is that cute little baby going to turn out? What lurks in his future? That is the chilling scenario of We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Eva Khatchadourian is confronted with the terrible fact that her little son grew up to become a mass murderer.

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3. Verisimilitude 

This does not mean that the story needs to be realistic. It means that the universe created by the author follows precise and specified rules, which are maintained throughout the story. There is consistency in the internal laws of the novel. The demon that possesses the little girl in the shocking The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, for example, has limited powers. Although he claims to be the Devil himself, he cannot untie Regan from the bed or make her fly around at night.

4. A Sense of Claustrophobia

Confined spaces make the ideal setting for horror stories. The fact that you cannot leave a place enhances the feeling or powerlessness that a horror book must instill in the reader. In Peter Benchley’s Jaws, for example, three men battle a fierce shark in the middle of the ocean. All the space they have is a small boat, which starts to crumble to pieces as the predator attacks it. In Stephen King’s The Shining, the main character’s mental health starts to deteriorate. As he becomes progressively more unhinged and violent, his wife and little son cannot escape the isolated and weather-beaten hotel they are stranded in.

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5. A Sense of Paranoia 

The main character feels that all around are plotting his downfall. In Ira Levin’s horrific Rosemary’s Baby the pregnant mother doesn’t feel she can trust anyone. Everyone around seems to be in on a conspiracy to hurt her baby, including her doctor. In fact, those people are members of a coven of evil witches and all of them have the baby’s best interests in mind. The problem is the baby himself.

6. Violence

An element of horror books that never fails to cause extreme discomfort in readers, and, at the same time, makes this literary genre very attractive to so many, is the amount of physical of psychological violence depicted in horror stories. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, a classic of the yuppie era, is soaked in gore. Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs details an unbearably tense relationship between a young FBI agent, Clarice Starling, and her mentor in the solution of a crime, Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer kept in high-security prison.

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American Psycho (from the movie based on the novel)

What is your all-time favorite horror novel? Which of the traits above does it use to scare the living daylights out of its readers.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

On reading – from Roald Dahl’s Matilda


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

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For Those Who Enjoyed Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why


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

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

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

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

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

The Pact by Jodi Picoult

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

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

Undone By Cat Clarke

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

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

A Gothic Christmas Angel by Anna Erishkigal

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

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

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

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.