10 Books You Should Read to Understand Brazil Better


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

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

1. The Brazilians, by Joseph Page.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. A Death in Brazil, by Peter Robb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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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Philip Roth on Love (The Dying Animal)


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

 

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5 Books Kids Used to Love Reading


I was lucky to grow up in a house packed with books. Both my mother and father loved reading. However, a dear aunt who lived with us for the most part of our lives was the real family bookworm. She wouldn’t stop buying books. This is the kind of environment that fosters the taste for reading in a kid. We wanted to know what the fuss was all about. Why do these grown-ups keep their eyes glued to those pages when the rest of us are having such a great time in front of the television watching Lost in Space? I had to find out.

My Mom decided to buy a collection of juvenile books which had just come out. Each volume came out quarterly and was sold from newsstands. It was basically through this collection that I made the acquaintance of some of the  great storytellers of all time: Dickens, R. L. Stevenson, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Victor Hugo and Jack London to name just a few. J. K Rowling was not among them, but I must confess I find Harry Potter’s The Prisoner of Azkaban a very sophisticated and clever book. The dementors, strange creatures that look after the magic prison featured in the story, are prone to inspire all kinds of psychological metaphors which can be disturbing even to adult readers.

In this post I’m going to list some of the books I loved when I read them as a child or a teenager and try to explain the power they exerted on my imagination, making me become an avid reader for life.

The Bookworm by Spitzweg, Carl 1850

The Bookworm by Spitzweg, Carl 1850

1. Treasure Island by R. L. Stevenson: this was probably the first “real” book I’ve ever read (as opposed to the toy-books and comics I read before). It had a hard cover and it was thick by a 11-year-old’s standards. My brother and I read it around the same time and we couldn’t stop talking about Jim, the kid hero, who finds a map to a hidden treasure, after a mysterious captain dies at his parents’ inn by the sea. This is basically a coming-of-age tale, as Jim embarks on a perilous journey to find the treasure. Of course it has all the clichés  we associate with pirate tales today.  But I believe it must have been among the very first books to create and develop those same clichés in the first place.  Whenever my brother and I would go to desert beaches for a day or the weekend – they’re a lot more common on the northeastern coast of Brazil, where we lived,  than in the rest of the country – we relived in our imagination, as we ran up and down dunes and rocks,  Jim’s adventures and challenges. We were Jim ourselves.

2. The Adventures of  Tom Swayer by Mark Twain: who can forget Tom and Huck, best buddies, having fun, playing games and pranks in a small town by the Mississipi river in the early 1840s? Tom lived with a little bother, Sid, and a cousin, Mary, under the strict surveillance of Aunt Polly, who was always harassing the poor boy on matters of religion, cleanliness and good manners. Huck, on the other hand, was a boy of the streets, son of a drunk hobo, free to do whatever he pleased. Tom was the leader of the gang of the boys in the area, playing pirates and robbers, traveling to islands and exploring caves. The book is also about a boy’s first love and, although for most of us this was not so interesting, Twain made us care a lot about Becky, Tom’s sweetheart, by having them get lost in a maze-like cave, persecuted by a wanted criminal in the thrilling climax of the book. Unforgettable. This book is continued on a much more sophisticated work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, considered Twain’s masterpiece. But I only got to read that a lot later in life.

3. The Call of the Wild by Jack London: the progressive inner journey of Buck – a domesticated dog kidnapped by an unscrupulous farmer employee, and sold to work as a sled dog in Alaska- into his wild self is beautiful and liberating. The story is boldly told from the point of view of the animal itself, so we get a whole new perspective. The story is so powerful that makes one wonder whether we ourselves should not follow a similar path in the search of our truest soul, shedding all the masks and disguises imposed by a false concept of civilization.

4. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens: of course the possibility of losing my mother was the worst nightmare I had growing up. My father died in an accident when I was very young, so I grew up in constant fear that my Mom might leave me too. Reading Oliver Twist was a great cathartic way to put myself in the character’s shoes and deal with the horrible situations I feared the most, with the relief that, whenever I put the book down, all the horrors I had been through remained pure fantasy and my Mom would still be safely living with me. It was reassuring to realize I’d never had to beg for food as the poor hero after being served a meager meal in one of the most heart-wrenching passages of the book: “Please, sir, I want some more.”

5. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne: if you read it today, it will feel a bit dated and definitely unbelievable. But at the time I first read it, I was fascinated by the trip to Iceland to reach the right volcano crater which would lead the characters down to the center of the planet. Some of the images branded forever in my brain by the powerful storytelling are, for example, the huge lake in the depths of the earth where we watch a fascinating fight between aquatic Cambrian monsters; the enormous caves jammed with stalagmites and  stalactites (I bet you don’t know the difference between them!)  the characters had to walk across on their way down, or the narrow halls and passageways along which they crawled down on their mission to get to the center of our planet.  However, it was hard to keep the suspence of disbelief during the passage at the end of the book, when the characters are implausibly ejected to the surface of the planet by riding a flimsy raft on rising boiling magma, traveling up a volcano channel. No way!

The books mentioned above are commonly associated with boys’ taste for challenge, danger, violence and adventure. I suspect, however, that girls might derive the same pleasure from them. What do you think? Please leave your comment and rate this post as you leave the page. Don’t forget to tell us about your favorite books too.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

Takeaways from Four of Philip Roth’s Best Novels


Philip Roth died last night at 85. This article was written a couple of years ago.

For the usual readers of this blog, it’s no surprise that I consider Philip Roth the best living North American writer. This opinion is shared by many other people, so I’m not alone in this assumption.  I was lucky to have read my first Roth – although in Portuguese – when I was still in college: Portnoy’s Complaint. Of course, I was duly scandalized by the  account of the life and troubles of a young Jewish American man who does not refrain from telling the explicit details of his sexual activities to a silent therapist. Maybe I was not as shocked as the readers who first came across the book when it came out in the 1960s, but the late 1980s in Recife, Brazil, were still pretty conservative for the likes of Roth. As a matter of fact, I would say the whole world still is.

Novels by Philip Roth

Novels by Philip Roth

Roth does not mince words. He is brutal and unsentimental in the depiction of his characters,  despite the love and care you sense he feels for most of them deep down, if you read his novels attentively.  He tends to strip men and women of their social disguises, digs deep, and exposes them almost cruelly to our judgment. Some say he is a misogynist in his portrayal of women. Well, if you read Sabath’s Teather, in which he creates one of the most disgusting and at the same time fascinating male characters in Western literature, you may change your mind. He can be as harsh towards men, after all. The world is in general tougher on women and, therefore, misogynistic itself. Roth’s novels are a mere reflection of life as it is. More precisely: his novels illuminate angles and dark corners of life we try to hide from our eyes and thoughts.

This blog post has the simple objective of listing 4 of my favorite Roth novels and what I personally took away from them. Please don’t take my word for it. Immerse yourselves in the original sources and feel free to interpret them as you feel you should. The comments below may be entertaining, though. However, I’ll never presume they reveal the essence of each of the discussed works.

1, Nemesis: New Jersey in the mid 1940s. A horrible outbreak of polio causes mayhem in a peaceful community. Children are badly affected, especially the ones who live in the Jewish and Italian quarters of the city. Few families are not hit by tragedy. It’s practically impossible to run away from it. Are the gods against them or are they on their own in a world ruled by the random manifestations of an indifferent nature. Does it matter? The only option left for humans struck by horror and tragedy is to accept it and find a mental way of coping with the debris. Nothing else makes sense or will help our species. Stand up for yourself and fight on your terms. Throw your javelin with all the beauty and strength of a God (an image you will find in the book) and defy your peers in Mount Olympus.

2. American Pastoral: Winner of the Pulitzer prize for best work of fiction in 1998.  This novel tells the story of the idyllic life of a perfect upper-middle class American family,  eventually shattered to pieces when the sweet and amorous daughter grows up to become a rebel teenager and join militants in a protest against the Vietnam war, allegedly planting a bomb in the local post office and killing a bystander. She then runs away, disappearing forever from home. I guess the takeaway from this book is given in the first chapters, in a different context, when we are still in the story outside the story,  which makes the complex framing structure of the novel. Do we really know what people are like? Nathan Zuckerman, one of Roth’s recurrent characters, who may function as his alter ego, shares this painful truism with us: “You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. … The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.”

3. Sabbath’s Theater: Not for the faint of heart, this book depicts the progressive moral and physical deterioration of a man who has never had any other ambition rather than entertain people through running a marionette show in the streets of New York. It’s when this puppeteer blurs the limits between what you can do to your dolls as opposed to other real human beings that the problems start. You cannot manipulate people without suffering serious consequences. The dolls will turn on you eventually and your life will become a nightmare. The most amazing thing about the book is the ability of the writer to turn one of the most repellent characters ever created in Western literature, Mickey Sabbath, into a sympathetic and even lovable person for a legion of fans, who can sense all the humanity that oozes out of him.

4. The Human Stain (spoiler alert: you can’t discuss this book without giving some essential info away – in my defense, all I can say is the info I’m about to share will be revealed in the first chapters of the novel anyway.) This novel is not a whodunit kind of work, rest assured. A Jewish former professor and dean of the fictitious Athenas College in Massachusetts is forced to resign after, going through the roll call,  asks the class if a couple of listed students who never show up and whom he never met personally “are real or spooks”.  It so happens that in those days of the end of the 1990s spook was a loaded word, a derogatory epithet for African Americans. In the intolerant and hypocritical climate of the reign of the politically correct, the professor is the perfect scape goat, and everyone who’s ever held any grudge against him jumps at the opportunity to tap into the incident to profit from it, by destroying his reputation. Unjust, unfair, stupid. Worse: Professor Coleman Silk is in truth an African American  himself, who, for excelling in boxing when he was young and having light skin, passed for white in the eyes of a number of influencial people on his way up the sport’s ladder, and decided to assume this fake persona. He had been a youth in the 1950s and realized he would never have the same opportunities of a white person to fulfill his potential no matter how hard he tried. He is offered a way out and takes it, abandoning his family and his previous life, and recreating himself as a completely new person, whose potential could now be tapped to the full. He becomes the Jewish professor Silk. But he will pay dearly for it and for breaking other conventions of the times. He is a born transgressor.  A fighter. The reader is therefore left with the painful and disturbing question of whether he/she would have done the same thing. Haven’t we all done something similar to some extent in our lives: compromising, betraying, discarding deeply ingrained beliefs and principles to succeed and get ahead? Or at least to be given a shot at the possibility of winning, when all the odds are against us? A powerful and uncomfortable novel, I can’t stop returning to it. I’m always going back to Silk’s saga to reflect on my own values and how truthful I still remain to them.

American Writer Philip Roth

American Writer Philip Roth

If you have the chance, get one of those books and read them. I can guarantee they will change you somehow.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

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