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.

steven_pinker_2_by_rose_lincoln_harvard_university-feat

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).

41TpWQ307sL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

writing_content_190610-800x450

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:

 

10592

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.

 

 

10176

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?”

 

x510

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.

 

220px-Portnoy_s_Complaint

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 

 

5196M0SIdVL-1._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_

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

1749b5af55cb2c2efb751e61abce0f1d

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

71--XcbyBEL

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

10176

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

400-keeper-9780743454537

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.

b1093-the-mother-tongue-bill-bryson-D_NQ_NP_930601-MLB28682009274_112018-F

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.

sing-still

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.

31080926176_5f506bd127_b

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.

UK-US_flag

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.

10677213

 

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.

61OuCs77d+L

 

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.

51oKjNlKLTL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

 

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.

51mIdtrrioL

 

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.

51z86Kg8jhL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_

 

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.

518+nunqX0L

 

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

9780140446746

 

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.

517B95BFKCL._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_

 

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.

51iDeykiAAL

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.

c7bfa1c130de93e81d6d2be25a84aeee

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.

 

Cate_Blanchett_Cannes_2015-1

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

5722032716_4bfd2bce7a_b

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

 

9781444723250

 

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.

 

71GLAwC9cPL

 

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.

 

588138

 

 

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

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

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

What 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.”

Italo-Calvino

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.

prideandprejudice-bookcover2

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?

cprITatzz1ewwDj5pVyojE3K_400x400

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.

Oscar_Wilde_portrait

Oscar Wilde

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

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

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

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

Velázquez – The Iconic Painter of the Spanish Baroque


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

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

XIR221119

Velázquez

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

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

0105vela.big

Old Woman Frying Eggs

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

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

Image-1

Pope Innocent X

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

XIR974

Vulcan’s Forge

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

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

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

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

Five Takeaways from the Book TED Talks – The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking


Founded by Richard Saul Wurman and Harry Marks in 1984, the TED conferences originally featured talks focused on Technology, Entertainment, and Design. Under the catchy tagline Ideas Worth Spreading, the range of these talks has since expanded to include other academic, scientific and cultural topics.

If you have ever watched any of these talks, you will have noticed that they are not the usual boring PowerPoint-based presentations we get in conferences of all kinds. Storytelling techniques – long a proven method for grasping and keeping listeners’ attention – prevail in most TED talks. Another obvious key to their success in the succinctness; speakers have 18 minutes to tell a compelling narrative.

415cATz+xqL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_

 

In his engrossing book, TED Talks – The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, published last year, Chris Anderson, who took over the conferences in the early 2000s, offers the reader a truckload of useful and practical suggestions on how to put together and deliver a memorable presentation. A must-read for everyone who needs to speak in public these days (and who doesn’t?)

To whet your appetite, we have selected five of the most stimulating presentation tips we found in the book. See below.

1.What is the takeaway?

As you organize your talk, decide on what is the point you are trying to make. There must be an overarching theme connecting all the elements of the story. This is called a throughline in movies, plays, and novels. As a planning exercise, make sure you specify a concrete objective in no more than 15 words. What is your goal? What do you want to accomplish? What do you want the audience to do, how do you want them to feel after you leave the stage?

Chris_Anderson_2007-1

2. Get personal.

Speakers need to connect to the audience, break the ice and build trust. A talk is much more than mere words. You need to engage the audience on many levels. There are different ways to do that. Making eye contact with the audience, for example, is always effective. Showing some kind of vulnerability, such as admitting that you are nervous, may also work. Using humor at the beginning – through a personal anecdote, presenting funny visuals, or by playing with irony and sarcasm – may do the job. Don’t try to be funny if you are not comfortable with it, though.

3. Visuals.

We all know the staggering amount of technology available out there to help public speakers: slides showing graphs, photography, infographics, animations; video, audio, etc. Yet, it may come as a surprise that at least one third of the most viewed TED talks do not make use any of these tools. So maybe you should ask yourself: do I really need to use them? And how much of it is really necessary? Most people are extremely familiar with these so-called innovations by now anyway, so it’s hard to make an impact based only on them. Besides, visuals may distract the audience, taking their attention from you! Then again, great slides may add to the presentation, especially when they do not only repeat and highlight what is being said verbally. Ideally, visuals should reveal (show something that can not be easily described by words); explain (make concepts clearer: a picture is worth a thousand words!); and delight (give the talk aesthetic appeal).

4. To memorize or not to memorize.

Although most TED speakers have their presentations scripted out beforehand and memorize them, this approach does not work for everyone. There’s beauty and power in variety. You need to discover your own natural style. Possible options: you can write and memorize your talk; use in-the-moment language to talk about something you are familiar with (it helps to have a mental structure of the points to cover, though); or even read your piece! Whatever makes you more comfortable and confident. However, remember that preparation is essential for any format you choose.

TED_three_letter_logo.svg

5. Traps to avoid.

There are some speaking styles TED organizers do not recommend. The sales pitch: trying to sell products or services directly through your talk may damage your reputation as a speaker. The main job of a speaker is to give not to take. So be careful. Find out if this is the kind of talk your audience is expecting. The ramble: to be under-prepared or not to have a set objective is insulting to the audience; the org bore: talks that focus on the greatness of an organization or on how amazing their staff is will probably bore the audience to death – they don’t work there after all. The inspirational performance: despite the fact that great TED talks deeply inspire and move the listeners, this effect cannot be manipulated through tricks and gimmicks. It needs to feel real. So avoid copying the so-called “inspirational” talks, where the speaker is full of self-praise and despicably phony.

For more tips, I strongly recommend you get the book now and make sure your next presentation is a hit.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette