10 Books You Should Read to Understand Brazil Better


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

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

1. The Brazilians, by Joseph Page.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. A Death in Brazil, by Peter Robb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

  1. The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Clara dos Anjos

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

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

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

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

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six of Batman’s Most Dangerous Enemies


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

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

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

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

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

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

A: The letter ‘E’

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

A: Your name

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jorge Sette

Steven Pinker: Tips on Writing with Style


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jorge Sette.

 

 

5 Most Horrible Moms in Fiction


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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

Toxic Relationships Between Parents and Kids in Fiction


Parenting is hard work. This most intimate relationship between human beings is fraught with danger; it can be emotionally draining and has every chance of going wrong. It’s an incredibly difficult juggling act, where the pieces at play are as fragile as glasswork.  The books selected below are all stories about dysfunctional families, whose members are involved in highly toxic relations.

1. The Prince and the Pauper – by Mark Twain

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In this moving and entertaining classic story – Mark Twain’s first attempt at historical fiction – the young Prince Edward VI, son of Henry VIII, is given the unique opportunity to trade places with the pauper Tom Canty – a boy from Offal Court off Pudding Lane who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to the prince. Edward’s plan is to experience the freedom of a normal life and to get to know firsthand the reality of his future Kingdom. However, as he drifts along the squalid streets of XVI century London, fleeing from the brutal hands of the thieving alcoholic John Canty, Tom’s abusive father, he will have to deal with problems and learn harder lessons than he ever bargained for. Great quote:

“A full belly is little worth where the mind is starved.”

2. American Pastoral – by Philip Roth

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Seymour “Swede”  Levov was the beloved blond-haired, blue-eyed Jewish athlete at Newark’s Weequahic High School. Levov was the object of envy and admiration of every boy in the community, a local hero. He grew up to become a successful businessman and to live the American Dream to the full, with a perfect wife and a loving daughter, owning a bucolic estate in the suburbs. But this is a Philip Roth novel, and reality has its ways of catching up. The times are changing; we are in the turbulent late 1960s now. From a sweet, good-looking little girl, Levov’s daughter Merry has slowly turned into a stammering, overweight teenager: a radicalized leftist terrorist, who detonates a bomb at the local post office to protest the Vietnam War. A bystander gets killed in the process, and Merry goes into hiding, but her father will never give up on her. There signs, however, that maybe Levov is somehow flawed, like a tragic Greek hero, bringing this catastrophe upon himself. What could have happened between Swede Levov and his daughter to change her so profoundly? Let’s look back at a small incident that took place on the beach a long time ago… American Pastoral is considered by many Roth’s masterpiece. The novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. I will leave you with a chilling quote from this stunning book:

“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.” 

3. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim – by David Sedaris

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David Sedaris is one of the funniest contemporary writers in America. Growing up gay in a family of four sisters and a younger brother, under a traditional middle-class father of Greek descent, and a chain-smoking and alcoholic mother, the obsessive-compulsive author focuses, in his stories, on the hilarious experiences of his severely dysfunctional family. His self-deprecating kind of humor and singular perspective on the various facets of family life will make the reader roar with laughter. Among his works, I would especially recommend Dress My Family in Corduroy and Denim, where you will find some of his funniest stories.

“She’s afraid to tell me anything important, knowing I’ll only turn around and write about it. In my mind, I’m like a friendly junkman, building things from the little pieces of scrap I find here and there, but my family’s started to see things differently. Their personal lives are the so-called pieces of scrap I so casually pick up, and they’re sick of it. More and more often their stories begin with the line “You have to swear you’ll never repeat this.” I always promise, but it’s generally understood that my word means nothing.” 

4. My Sister’s Keeper – by Jodi Picoult

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This is the unsettling story of Anna Fitzgerald, who, unlike most of us, was deliberately conceived by her parents to fulfill a specific purpose. Anna was born to provide genetically suitable material for her older sister Kate, who has been diagnosed with promyelocytic leukemia. On the various occasions when Kate relapses, she needs to rely on Anna’s donations of leukocytes, stem cells, and bone marrow to survive. We meet Anna when she is already thirteen and beginning to resent and question her role in life. But when her parents expect her to give Kate one of her kidneys, Anna decides she’s had enough and looks for legal help to sue them for rights to her own body. From the book:

“In the English language there are orphans and widows, but there is no word for the parents who lose a child.” 

Have you read any of these books? Share your views with us.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

Bragging about English (Highlights from Bill Bryson’s “The Mother Tongue”)


In his funny and enlightening book about English (The Mother Tongue – English and How It Got That Way), the love and pride of Bill Bryson – the best-selling Anglo-American writer of books on language, travel and science – for his native tongue transpire on every page.

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Packed with historical facts, hilarious anecdotes and scholarly information about the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of English, the book is a pleasure for those who teach, write, edit, work with or simply use and are interested in the most international language of contemporary times. The good news is, as the book is constantly drawing fascinating comparisons between English and other tongues and dialects, you may appreciate it even if English is not your favorite language. Readers will also be captivated as they follow the changes English has gone through since its origins and the many influences it has been subject to in its evolution. Here are some highlights of the book to which I took the liberty to add a few personal comments.

1. English has become the biggest and most influential international language of contemporary times, with some 400M native speakers; 400M speakers of English as a second language and 700M speakers of English as a foreign language – and growing (this data has been updated according to the latest info available on Wikipedia). It’s the international language of business, education, movies, pop music, science and politics.

2. The author claims it’s the only language that, due to its richness of vocabulary, needs books on synonyms, such as Roget’s Thesaurus. One of the reasons for this variety is English has been borrowing words from more than 50 different languages throughout its formation. It’s believed that English has a synonym for each level of the culture: popular, literary and scholarly. So, for example, one can rise, mount or ascend a stairway. One could also shrink in fear, horror or trepidation. Another curious example given in the book: one can think, ponder or cogitate upon a problem.

3. The author also says that another factor that sets English apart from most languages is its flexibility concerning word order, the use of the passive and the active voice and the subtle differences one can express through verbal forms. Notions that in many other languages, for example, would be represented by only one form of the simple present in English can become: I sing, I do sing, I’m singing, I’ve been singing.

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4. Although Bryson admits there’s no way to measure or prove the superiority of a language over others, he is proud of the fact that, in English, the pronouns are largely uninflected regarding the social status of the person we are talking to, which makes it practical, simple and, to some extent, democratic. One can safely stick to you,regardless of whether you are speaking to a friend, your grandmother, a person of any social class, or even your boss.

5. Also, he praises the fact that English is relatively free of gender considerations for things and objects. A chair does not need to be masculine or feminine, you just sit in it.

6. English is a branch of the common tree of the Indo-European languages. It grew out of the Germanic family of languages. 1,500 hundred years ago Germanic tribes (the Angles and Saxons) crossed the North Sea and invaded the land where the Celts were already established (and also having lived together side by side with the Romans for nearly 400 years). It must have been hard on the Celts – a rather more sophisticated people – to be overrun by these hordes of unlettered, uncultured and pagan invaders.

7. The funny thing is that the language of the Angles was the one which most firmly established itself on the new land, despite the superiority in numbers of the Saxon invaders. Besides, while still on the continent, Anglo-Saxons had borrowed heavily from the Roman vocabulary (Latin). Another great historic influence that helped shape the English language, as we know it today, was the invasion of the islands by the Normans (Vikings who spoke a rural variety of French) in 1066. The kings of England spent the next 300 years without speaking English. Hence the strong influence of French words in contemporary English vocabulary.

8. Languages mold cultures and the other way around too. English speakers seem to dread silence in conversations. If it drags for more than 4 seconds, one of the people involved will make a comment about the weather, or come up with an empty comment such as, oh, my god – and, then,  pointing at his watch, will say something along the lines of time to leave, or time flies.

9. Shakespeare used some 17,000 words in his writings. 10% of them had never been used before. He coined them. Among the words Shakespeare contributed to the English language are: critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, excellent, countless, submerged, gust, hint, hurry, lonely, summit, etc.

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10. In 1978, Robert Burchfield, who was the chief editor of The Oxford English Dictionaries at the time, predicted that in 200 years British and American English would be two completely different languages, mutually unintelligible. This prediction, however, has been repeated a number of times in history and its based on what happened, for example, to the Indo-European languages, especially Latin, which gave origin to distinct languages such as Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese. Nevertheless, the contemporary trend, with communications and traveling intensifying globally, in addition to the heavy use of the Internet, is the exact opposite. More and more words and grammar structures get exported internationally, mainly by the USA. So it’s unlikely that a total split will ever happen, quite the contrary.

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These 10 points we highlighted are only a very small percentage of the wealth of interesting information, considerations and insights into English you will find in Bill Bryson’s delicious book. Don’t waste any time: order it right now!

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

10 Must-Read Biographies of Famous Artists


You don’t need to know anything about the artist’s life and his times, or understand his technique and motivations to be able to appreciate his work. There’s a quote by Monet, the quintessential Impressionist painter, that addresses this issue:

“People discuss my art and pretend to understand as if it were necessary to understand, when it’s simply necessary to love.”

However, many people will agree that learning about the artist’s background is a great source of pleasure. Besides, it helps you identify their obsessions with certain themes, observe details of paintings you had not noticed before, understand what he’s trying to accomplish with a determined piece of artwork, and, therefore, enhance your whole experience as a viewer. Reading biographies is a great way of gaining this knowledge.

I would recommend the following ones, as they’re all carefully researched and written books, bringing to life the individual characteristics of the artist and the historic moments they lived in

1. Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

A careful and very detailed account of Van Gogh’s life, this biography starts at the painter’s childhood, when he lived at his father’s parsonage, and takes us all the way to his alleged suicide. The work borrows heavily on the steady correspondence between Vincent and his bother Theo, giving us a comprehensive and in-depth view of the tormented life of this brilliant artist.

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2. Winslow Homer at Prout’s Neck, by Philip C. Beam

A succinct account of the rather uneventful life of Winslow Homer, considered the best American artist of the XIX century. Although Homer’s life was nothing like Caravaggio’s or Van Gogh’s in terms of thrilling adventures, it’s great to understand the rationale behind his technique and to find out where he painted his best works. Geography is the key to unlock insights into Winslow Homer’s works of art.

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3. Winslow Homer: a short illustrated biography for kids, by Jonathan Madden

A simplified account of the life of this great American Writer meant for teenagers, it brings a great number of images of Homer’s greatest artworks in full color. An interesting way to introduce the artist to young readers.

 

4. Matisse and Picasso: the story of the rivalry and friendship, by Jack Flan

Matisse and Picasso were close friends and fierce rivals. This book draws clever parallels between the lives and works of these great modernist artists. It shows how the art of each one of them was in constant conversation with the other’s, borrowing themes and techniques, but always adapting the acquired influence to each artist’s own style and moving it one step forward. This rivalry became a very enriching cooperation, making us believe that it was essential to the artistic development of both painters.

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5. Jackson Pollock: An American saga, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

Written by the same authors of Van Gogh: The Life, this carefully researched work won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for biography or autobiography. Based on family letters and documents, as well as on interviews with the artist’s widow and his psychologists, it focuses on the controversial aspects of the troubled life and revolutionary art of this extraordinary American Abstract Expressionist painter.

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6. M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio, by Peter Robb

In this masterful biography, Peter Robb delves into the dark and violent spirit of the end of the XVI century to explain the forces that shaped and influenced the life and art of the brilliant and controversial artist. The Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition, the scientific discoveries, the vibrant and competitive artistic atmosphere of Rome – the city considered the center of the world at the time – are all factors that converged to create the man and his oeuvre.

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7. American Mirror: the Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, by Deborah Soloman

Art critic and biographer Deborah Soloman explores the art and complex personality of the man who helped forge the idealistic American identity of the first half of the XX century, working for almost 50 years as the main illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post. A big town boy who loved the countryside, Rockwell could be very cold and insensitive towards his models and was subject to frequent bouts of depression. He was treated by the famous psychotherapist Erick Erikson. This biography explains how the compulsive work of Rockwell helped keep him mentally healthy, explaining the way his obsessions found their way into his art.

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8. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, by Vincent van Gogh (Penguin Classics)

If you don’t wish a mediator to lead you through this great artist’s harrowing life, delve straight into the primary sources of all other biographies and read his letters to Theo, his closest brother and confidant. They kept a steady correspondence throughout their lives, so this is the most direct way to get to know the events he went through, his thoughts and innermost feelings. Vincent had a hard time finding his artistic path in life; he thought he wanted to follow in his father s footsteps and become a preacher, but he failed at that; he didn’t make a good teacher or art dealer either. But when he discovered his true vocation, he gave himself entirely to his art, and suffered the consequences of such radical surrender. Through the letters, we also get to know about his religious struggles, his admiration for the French Revolution and his love life

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9. Leonardo Da Vinci: The Flights of the Mind, by Charles Nicholl

In this brilliant yet dense autobiography, Nicholl focuses on the man behind the myth, by offering an in-depth analysis of Da Vince’s notebooks. The author doesn’t dwell on Leonardo’s works, and the comments on his oeuvre are only superficial. The book covers the whole life of the Renaissance genius, from 1452, when he was born, the illegitimate child of peasant girl, in the countryside of Tuscany near Florence, to his death, when he acknowledged with sadness that there was so much more to learn and do. Da Vince was a visual thinker who translated his thoughts into drawings – a designer, with both artistic and engineering skills. He didn’t believe that words could represent nature as precisely as sketches, blueprints, drawings and paintings. Yet, Nicholl’s biography tries to penetrate Leonardo’s mind and show it to us – not through images but in glowing words.

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10. Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, by Roxana Robinson

This iconic artist’s biography discusses the events of her controversial life, fiery personality, as well as the people close to her and her relationships. It goes beyond that to also offer the reader a detailed and insightful critique of her modernist work. The author had the cooperation of members of her family to write the book. Considered a heroine by the feminist movement of the 70s, O’Keefe had been profoundly influenced by the feminist suffrage movement before World War I, becoming one of the first American women to succeed professionally as an artist.

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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