5 Brazilian Novels We Strongly Recommend


Our readers trust our book recommendations. We have been asked to recommend important novels that, for some reason, might not be on our followers’ radar. Therefore, I’m sharing with you five gems of Brazilian Literature, from different times and regions of our vast country,  all beautifully translated into English. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

The Alienist by Machado de Assis (Originally published in 1882)

What is madness? How can you differentiate mad people from sane minds? These are the questions this timelessly hilarious novella puts forward. Readers will meet the psychiatrist Dr. Simão Bacamarte, an academic luminary of the fictitious city of Itaguaí, near Rio de Janeiro. Having studied in two of the best universities of Europe, Coimbra, and Padua, Bacamarte turns down the Portuguese king’s invitation to remain in Europe as a court physician, deciding to go back to Brazil to conduct experiments and scientific studies in the field of mental health. The plot, however, is only a pretext for Machado to, sarcastically, criticize the theories of positivism, scientific racism and social Darwinism, prevalent at the end of the XIX century. The story takes place a century earlier, though, when Brazil was still a Portuguese colony. After committing 80% of the town’s inhabitants to the special asylum, the Casa Verde (The Green House), erected with public funds, Bacamarte realizes that, statistically, there must be something wrong: maybe it was the remaining 20% of the people, kept outside, who were crazy after all! But the development of new insights will take him a step further… 

The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (Originally published in 1977)

The last book by acclaimed writer Clarice Lispector, published shortly before her death, is the moving account of the life of a poor migrant woman, Macabea, who leaves her hometown in the state of Alagoas, in the northeast of the country (the region in which Clarice Lispector herself grew up, after arriving in Brazil from Ukraine in the 1920s) in search of the elusive dream of a better life in the metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. In addition, the novel is also an insightful reflection on the act of writing, as the fictitious narrator, Rodrigo, in quite a few asides, analyzes his own skills as a writer. According to Clarice Lispector, who summarized the book during a famous TV interview, this is “the story of a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery”. The book was made into an award-winning movie directed by Suzana Amaral in 1985.

The War of the Saints by Jorge Amado (The Portuguese edition came out in 1988)

The holy icon of Saint Barbara (or Yansan, the goddess of thunder and lighting, as she is known in the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé) is taken by boat from her original site, at the Church of Santo Amaro, to be part of a religious art exhibition in Salvador. When the boat docks, the saint miraculously comes to life, smiles, winks at her fellow passengers and simply walks off through the quay market, raising Cain in the city of Salvador. Her mission is to liberate the young and beautiful Manela from the repressive grip of her aunt and guardian Adalgisa. The plot, however, is only a pretext for the author to take the reader on an unforgettable and hilarious 48-hour tour of the city of Bahia during the oppressive years of the military dictatorship, introducing us to a series of colorful characters, savory foods and sensual religious rites. Mixing fact and fiction, where references to real musicians, singers, artists and political figures of the time abound, the narrator makes hilarious digressions, discussing, among other things, the nature of his narrative and making self-deprecating comments about his writing in a delicious conversation with the reader. This is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished and subversive books ever written by the author.

The Brothers by Milton Hatoum (Originally published in 2000)

Not many books in Brazilian literature tell stories that take place in the north region of the country. So The Brothers (Dois Irmãos, in Portuguese) will probably sound rather fresh to many readers. Besides having the exotic city of Manaus, in the heart of the Amazonian region, as its backdrop, the novel explores the life of a range of characters who are also singular in our literature: members of the community of Lebanese immigrants who live in that region. This is the family saga of the tradesman Halim, a muslim, his beautiful wife Zana, a Maronite christian, their identical twin sons, Yaqub and Omar, and their enterprising daughter Rania. The plot focuses on the rivalry and hatred between the twin brothers: the dissipated Omar, who lives at home, wasting his nights on drinking and prostitutes, and the ambitious, goal-oriented, Yakub, who, after being sent to Lebanon at the age of 13, where he lived for 5 years, comes back home only to leave again for Sao Paulo to become an engineer. This conflict between brothers is, of course, an archetypal motif, reminiscent of the biblical tale of Esau and Jacob, or Cain and Abel. Despite its universality, the plot is effectively localized in Hatoum’s fascinating Brazilian tale. Told by a peculiar narrator, Nael, the illegitimate son of the family’s native in-house maid, fathered by one of the twin brothers, the ill-fated story of passions, hatred, and revenge has unpredictable turns and a surprising end. The story also works as a metaphor for the contrasts within Brazil, especially between the underdeveloped North and the more progressive and industrial South. 

The Eternal Son by Critovão Tezza (originally published in 2007)

What does it feel like to find out that your firstborn has Down syndrome? This Jabuti prize-winning autobiographical novel by Cristovão Tezza tries to answer the question, as we follow the difficulties of a young father to come to terms with his son’s disability during the 1980s – when this condition was still called mongolism! Finding out that Felipe – the only character given a name in the book – has Down syndrome comes a terrible blow to this twenty-eight-year-old writer, who feels he himself has yet to become a full adult. He still doesn’t have any published books, his wife is the family breadwinner and his uncertain future becomes now even more complicated with the devastating arrival of this special kid. The description of the conflicting emotions the father goes through on his long journey towards the acceptance of Felipe, who lives in an eternal present, can at times make us uncomfortable, as the narrative – written in the third person – is brutally honest, letting the reader into the father’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, while avoiding any trace of sentimentality or self-righteousness. As a bonus, readers who might not know much about Down syndrome, are offered a great deal of information on this debilitating genetic condition. 

Jorge Sette

Review: Never Let me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro


Dystopias are a subgenre of science fiction that depict a nightmarish society, usually autocratic and controlling, in which the inhabitants or a section of the community are submitted to horrors imposed by the abuse of power or by the fact that technology has gone awry. The plot is usually embedded in a strong political context; the authors predict developments that might occur when trends in social conditions of their own times, combined with ill-use of technology, are taken to extremes. Having said that, some dystopias are written with the future in mind (1984 by George Orwell; Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; or The Circle by Dave Eggers); others take place in the author’s present (Animal Farm by George Orwell, for example). Others are even set in the past, as is the case with Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, the extraordinary novel we’ll be reviewing in this post.

Kazuo Ishiguro and His Novel

Kazuo Ishiguro

Authors who have made their names writing what is considered high literature – such as Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day – can produce exceptionally refined sci-fi/dystopian novels. This is because they do not overemphasize the importance of the plot or try to deliberately shock the reader with the strangeness of their imaginary dysfunctional world. They build well-rounded characters who are incredibly believable, stressing their nuanced emotions, their heroic and/or flawed deeds, their generosity and their meanness: The overall complexity of human relationships. The drama and thrills emerge naturally and slowly from the characters and their behavior. Besides, these stories give us new insights into the human condition and, under the guise of this imaginary world, the authors tend to be discussing relevant current issues metaphorically.

The plot and the characters

Never Let Me Go is the poignant story of three friends – Kathy (the protagonist), Tommy and Ruth – whose only purpose in life is to grow up to serve as organ donors for other members of society. They are part of a group of people who have been specifically cloned from models (other human beings) and are raised in special training centers, boarding schools in the UK, which lend the whole process a pretense of normality and humaneness. Soon after they finish their education, as adults, they are trained as carers – to look after donors after their surgeries – before they themselves start receiving notifications to begin donating all their viable organs in sequential surgeries, until they die, having, thus, accomplished their function.

The novel is narrated in flashback by the protagonist Kathy, when she is already a carer in her early 30s. She nostalgically reminisces about their time at the idyllic Hailsham, their boarding school, which we find out later was famous for offering the best conditions for the raising of clones in the whole of the UK – unlike the first centers set up as an experiment during the 1950s and 1960s, where thousands of people were submitted to horrific upbringings before they became donors.

Kathy’s childhood and teenage years are spent in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That’s when we get to know Ruth, Kathy’s best friend, who has a strong manipulative streak; Tommy, the short-tempered sporting boy, who is unfortunately terrible at arts, a rather valued skill at the school; and the young and sensitive Kathy herself, who has mixed feelings towards Tommy, but can never engage in a full relationship with him, as Ruth steps in first to become his official girlfriend. Tommy’s personality – his aggression and lack of artistic ability – makes him the target of bullies at the school, until he is aided by a sympathetic teacher who helps him manage his feelings and learn to come to terms with who he really is.

The students have a vague notion that they are being prepared for an unusual kind of future. However they will not know all the details about their tragic fate until much later when they enter society. The novel’s atmosphere is dark, ominous and deeply poignant – almost gothic in certain passages – as we see these kids growing up only half realizing what the future holds for them.

The language

Of course, as in all kinds of impactful dystopian works, the author comes up with specific language to define processes and entities of that special reality. In this case, donors do not die, they complete (passing away after a number of operations); the teachers of the special school they go to are known as guardians. The breed of humans cloned to serve as donors have a first name and only a capital letter for surname: Kathy H, Tommy D, and Susanna C, for example. Possibles are random people they run into occasionally and suspect they are probably the models from whom they might have been cloned.

Final considerations

In the last part of the book, as Ruth’s donations have already started, Kathy becomes her carer; later she is finally persuaded by Ruth to go and look after Tommy, who has already undergone two donations, so they can develop the autumnal – and doomed – romantic relationship that Ruth believes she has made impossible for them to enjoy so far, by standing between the two of them all their lives. She wants to make up for it now that she is about to die.

Some critics say this is the best book Japanese-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro has written since The Remains of the Day. It’s certainly a great achievement, having been shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize.

The book was also turned into a movie in 2010 and has become more popular ever since. Nevertheless, the language of some of the scenes created by Ishiguro is in itself so visual, beautiful and emotional, that I refuse to let the painful yet rewarding experience of reading those wonderful pages be influenced by any movie director’s interpretation or view of that special world.

No movie for me, thanks! The book has all the magic I need.

Jorge Sette

Philip Roth Revealed: Deconstructing Common Myths about One of the Greatest American Writers


Philip Roth died on May 22, 2018, at 85. This is the last article I wrote about him:

Before you read this post, you must understand and accept that nothing about it is objective or detached. I’m a huge fan of Philip Roth, who is considered by many one of the greatest American writers. I love his books. From the first Philip Roth I ever read – I was 17 or 18 at the time, young and impressionable – I was hooked for life. The fact that it happened to be the outrageously funny and scandalous Portnoy’s Complaint undoubtedly had something to do with my obsession. So my disclaimer is this: partiality will color this article; I’m a pro-Roth kind of person. My plan in this article is to tear down ingrained myths about the life and work of this brilliant provocateur, in my own inartistic words.

1. Philip Roth was an anti-Semitic, self-hating Jew. 

Have you ever read any of his books? The fact that he was Jewish pervades his work. His self-deprecating comments can only deceive the naive. He was very proud of his ethnicity and his family and friends, although he was far from orthodox or even religious. Roth was an atheist. The misunderstandings arise from his greater pride in being an American and his love for the fundamental (although perhaps more ideal than real) values the US stands for. He never took for granted the freedom and lifestyle that are the simple result of being born and having grown up in the geographic space that comprises the United States of America. Unlike the Anne Frank of his book The Ghost Writer, he had a childhood. And if he refused to be “a good boy” to be accepted, it’s because he believed that being a good boy made it even harder to fit in. You need to be outstanding, outrageous, infamous to break down walls and belong in the world of the goy.

2. Philip Roth wrote about his own life.

 Of course, reality informed his stories, and reality is apprehended through personal experiences as much as from vicarious ones – from books we read, movies we watch, things that happen to our family and friends. So there’s certainly a lot of Roth’s own life in his stories, but these experiences are transformed by imagination; they’re not necessarily exact representations of things that happened to him or that he did himself. Everything is filtered through the powerful lens of language and fiction. Life becomes larger and its dark corners are illuminated by the spotlight of Art. Hyperbole, amplification, metaphors, and masks are all part of the process. You can’t put your finger on a single paragraph in any of his books and guarantee it describes something that really happened to him. Even the famous Nathan Zuckerman, who first appears in The Ghost Writer and continues to feature as either the protagonist or the narrator in many subsequent novels, isn’t a warranted alter ego. I’ll admit Zuckerman is the mask that most closely resembled the author behind it, but he’s not Roth. There are a couple of books, however, in which Roth dares to unmask himself and write about reality – as far as this is possible since experiences are based on memory and language, which somehow always transform them. One of these non-fictional books is The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, written after a serious bout of depression caused by taking the drug Halcion for pain in his back. He wrote this short autobiography covering only the first 30 years of his life as a healing exercise, stripping himself as much as possible of his imagination and the usual masks. The second is the moving but never sentimental Patrimony: A True Story, a “snapshot of his father in movement,” as he states in the BBC documentary Roth Unleashed (which I strongly recommend), and a portrait written so he could remember his father in as much detail as possible. “I mustn’t forget anything,” was his mantra at the time. His father was dying of a brain tumor, and Roth realized he had the makings of a book – a tribute to the old man – in the notes he took at the end of each day, after coming home from the hospital where he looked after his father.

3. Philip Roth was a misogynist. 

All I can say is Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation to Philip), the writer of a very interesting book titled Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, is a woman, and she strongly disagrees with the view that Roth hated women. She gives the reader great insight into his body of work, including the themes, language, characters, and masks explored in his novels, and she maintains his books probe deeply into the human soul and bring up everything, the good and the bad, and therefore include a wide spectrum of women characters. It’s not accurate to say that he always depicted women as shrews. Besides, who’s to say that the women depicted as shrews in certain novels are representative of all women? If he hated women, he must have hated men as well, or haven’t you met one of the most despicable and depraved heroes ever created in Western literature: Mickey Sabbath, the protagonist of Roth’s gripping novel Sabbath’s Theater?

4. Philip Roth was a misanthrope. 

Writers, as a rule, aren’t the most sociable people in the world. They need hours of solitude if they’re to produce something worthwhile. Roth was a well-integrated and sociable person in his years as a child, teenager and young adult, and made many friends in college. Some of these friendships lasted until the day he died. He survived a tumultuous marriage to an older woman he met when he was only 23 and entered into a long-term relationship with actress Claire Bloom, during which time he lived mostly in London. He had other lovers and mistresses throughout his life. As he grew older, however, he became more and more of a recluse, spending long hours on his books, which grew in scope and importance to become indisputable masterpieces. According to writer Salman Rushdie, the growth and maturity reflected in these books were a direct consequence of Roth’s turning his creative beam from the obsessive self-analysis of his early works to the depiction and discussion of what lay around him, focusing on the bigger issues and themes of his beloved America. In his early 80s, he was perfectly happy living alone in his beautiful country house in Connecticut. When asked if he ever felt lonely, he replied, “Yes, sometimes, like everyone else,” but that the absence of friction – the inevitable result of contact and negotiations with other human beings – was something he never missed. It’s bliss not to have to cope with this any longer, he claimed.

The best way to get to know the real Roth – or rather, the Roth that matters – is by reading any of his 31 books. Immerse yourself in his world of masks without worrying too much about what’s real or imaginary. Engage in his game of mirrors. Appreciate his language and power of imagination. The life of any human being is composed of memories, so its account is never 100 percent reliable. We create and recreate reality all the time, so why expect anything different from a man who earns his living writing fiction? You will never get to his core because it’s impossible to grasp, being unpredictable and transient.

Jorge Sette

Love and Passion in Latin American Fiction


Love is always in the air, even in these difficult times of COVID-19. To help our blog followers make a decision on what to read next during the quarantine, we’ve selected 5 classic Latin American stories (three novels, a novella, and a play). These are stories in which love and passion (and their inseparable counterparts: hatred, vengeance, and violence) play a key role, though they do not necessarily fit the paradigm of romantic works. Let’s explore them.

Kiss of the Spider Woman, by Manuel Puig

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Argentina in the mid-1970s. The charismatic window dresser Molina (age 37, gay, sentenced to 7 years in prison) shares a cell with the political prisoner Valentin (age 26), who cannot forget the woman he left behind to serve the revolutionary cause. To fill up the void and boredom of their current situation, Valentin spends his waking hours either studying politics or listening to Molina’s retelling of his favorite films (they are usually romantic, black-and-white B-movies from the 1940s, featuring strong glamorous heroines he identifies with. Warning: the reader will get completely hooked on these melodramatic plots!). Slowly, a powerful bond develops between these two very different men. But can Valentin trust Molina? Or is he just a poisonous spider, weaving a dangerous web around Valentin, who’s entrapped by his captivating storytelling and generosity? Revolution, sexuality, male bonding and gender rights are the key themes of this unforgettable and moving tale of tales. In 1985, the novel was made into an acclaimed movie directed by Hector Babenco, featuring William Hurt, Raul Julia, and Sonia Braga.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, by Mario Vargas Llosa

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Set in 1950s Lima, Peru, this is the story of Mario, age 18, a Law student and aspiring writer, who works as a journalist for a radio station. Two simultaneous events will have a sudden impact on Mario’s quiet and reserved life. The arrival in Peru of his divorced Bolivian Aunt Julia (the exuberant sister of his uncle’s wife) in search of a new husband, and the hiring by the radio station of the also Bolivian eccentric scriptwriter Pedro Camacho, whose hard-working habits and inexhaustible creativity will become sources of inspiration to the young man. Mario and Julia – the typically irresistible older woman – start a puritanical romantic relationship, necessarily hidden from the rest of the family. Meanwhile, Pedro Camacho’s outlandish radio serials – whose plots, reproduced in prose, are incorporated in suspenseful chapters within the main narrative of the novel – take Peruvian audiences by storm, transforming the scriptwriter in an overnight celebrity. Hilarious.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold, by Gabriel García Márquez

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The opening lines of this thrilling novella are among my favorite in all Latin American literature:

“On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He’d dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream.”

You may wonder how the author manages to keep readers hanging on to his every word until the last paragraph, since the ending of the tragedy has already been so openly given away. Well, the obvious reason is we are dealing with Gabriel García Márquez here. In his works, the plot represents only one among many fascinating elements, which work together in the creation of a whole literary experience. The characters, for example, with their idiosyncrasies and complexity, leap off the page. The language stands out, producing a hauntingly suspenseful atmosphere; the strength and relevance of the themes (at once local and universal) engulf the reader in a potent swirl of ideas and feelings.

This novella is basically a deep examination of the chauvinistic culture still very much ingrained in the region. Following the extravagant and lavish wedding celebrations, the young Angela Vicario is sent back to her parent’s home only a couple of hours after the ceremony, as her husband, the rich and powerful Bayardo San Román, discovers she is not a virgin (which will not allow him to get the necessary public validation by the shameful tradition of displaying the bloodied linen sheet as proof of the marriage consummation). The young girl’s twin brothers, Pedro and Pablo, take upon themselves to avenge the family’s honor. They will hunt down and kill the man who seems to be responsible for the girl’s doomed fate, the wealthy and good-looking Santiago Nasar. Surprisingly, as the narrator – a friend of the victim’s from their school days – collects interviews from the various inhabitants of the town to reconstruct the events and write the story decades later, he finds out that everybody seemed to have known in advance, one way or another, about the murderers’ plans: so how could they have failed to warn Santiago of his imminent death?

Of Love and Shadows, by Isabel Allende

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The love story takes place in Chile during the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s. Francisco and Irene, the protagonists, have very different backgrounds. He is the youngest son of a Spanish anarchist, Professor Leal, who fled the Spanish Civil War with his wife, Hilda, and now, living in Chile, uses a printing press at home to produce leaflets promoting his political views. Francisco is involved in the clandestine leftist resistance, helping people hide and cross the border to escape the tentacles of the Political Police. Looking for a job as a photographer, Francisco meets Irene, a charismatic upper-class heiress who works as a journalist for a women’s fashion magazine. Their initial friendship and camaraderie develop slowly into passionate love, as Irene’s political awareness also matures. They finally realize they can’t live without each other.

However, when they discover an abandoned mine packed with corpses of desaparecidos (missing people, killed by the repressive military regime), they must embark on a political mission that will change their lives forever. The novel’s themes remain relevant, as political upheavals continue to shake South America in the 21st century.

Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman

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This disturbing play in three acts (which has had productions in Chile, New York, and London, and was also made into a movie directed by Roman Polanski, starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley in 1994) deals with confronting terrifying ghosts from one’s past.

Paulina Salas lives with her husband in an isolated house on the beach somewhere in Chile, nursing her psychological traumas from the recent past, when she, as a leftist militant, was imprisoned and tortured by members of the military dictatorship.

Times have changed: the dictatorship is over now and the nation is undergoing a healing process. Gerardo Escobar, her husband, has been appointed a member of an Investigating Commission that will look into the crimes against human rights perpetrated by the former regime. One night, however, he gets a flat tire and has no available spare. He’s rescued by Doctor Roberto Miranda, who’s also staying in a house on the beach, and gives him a ride home.

On the following night, Roberto turns up unexpectedly at Gerardo’s home, saying he just wanted to find out if they needed any more help with the car problem. On hearing the doctor’s voice, however, Paulina recognizes it. Although she could never see the man’s face in prison, she is sure he was the sadistic doctor in charge of her torture sessions. She is determined to take justice into her own hands, putting the doctor on trial in her own house… and she will enlist her husband as Dr. Miranda’s lawyer in the macabre plan.

If you have more suggestions on great Latin American literature, please write your comments below.

Jorge Sette.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interviewing Homer Simpson – One of The Most Popular Dads in Pop Culture


For months, I tried to get an exclusive interview with Homer Simpson for Father’s Day. His PR representative kept turning me down but I didn’t give up. Then I had a lucky break. As Lisa, his daughter, was browsing through my blog Linguagem, she came across the article Stephen King’s The Shining: Like Father, Like Son (https://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1IL) and got interested. The PR rep had neglected to inform Mr. Simpson as to where the interview would be published. Lisa convinced her Dad how important it could be for his career to talk to Linguagem. Consequently, Homer immediately granted me an interview. He couldn’t have been more apologetic about his employee’s gaffe. Needless to say, she got fired.

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The next day I flew to Springfield and, after a wonderful dinner with the entire family, I spoke to Homer. Below, you will find a summary of the insightful conversation we had about his life and the importance of fatherhood:

Linguagem: Mr. Simpson, how do you plan to celebrate Father’s Day with your family? Are you going anywhere fancy?

HS: What’s the point of going out? We’re just gonna wind up back here anyway.

Linguagem: I see. How do you feel about life in general?

HS: I’ve learned that life is one crushing defeat after another…

Linguagem: Do you follow any particular philosophy on how to educate your kids? Can you give us an example of how you discipline them when they are out of line?

HS: Now Bart, since you broke Grandpa’s teeth, he gets to break yours.

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Linguagem: And what about when your boy reach puberty?

HS: …I told my wife how to go about teaching Bart how to become a man: The code of the schoolyard, Marge! The rules that teach a boy to be a man. Let’s see. Don’t tattle. Always make fun of those different from you. Never say anything, unless you’re sure everyone feels exactly the same way you do.

Linguagem: Hmmm. As a Dad, what are your hopes for your children?

HS: I believe that children are our future. Unless we stop them now.

Linguagem: Are you a religious man? Do you thank God for the great life and wonderful family you have?

HS: I’m normally not a praying man, but if you’re up there, please save me, Superman. But I remember saying on one particular occasion: Dear Lord, the gods have been good to me. As an offering, I present these milk and cookies. If you wish me to eat them instead, please give me no sign whatsoever…thy will be done.

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Linguagem: What would you do if there were some kind of emergency with your kids?

HS: Operator! Give me the number for 911!

Linguagem: What is the best advice you could give to kids who didn’t accomplish what they had wanted to?

HS: Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.

Linguagem: Do you consider yourself a good role model for your children?

HS: I think the saddest day of my life was when I realized I could beat my dad at most things, and Bart experienced that at the age of four.

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Note: all Homer’s answers are actual quotes from the very successful and funny TV show. Homer may sometimes sound harsh, but he is a loving father and adored by his dedicated wife. Happy Father’s Day to all.

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

10 Major Benefits of Reading


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jorge Sette.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Become a Better Reader in 11 Steps


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

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Here are a few tips to improve your reading process:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

 

5 Killer Audiobooks for All Kinds of Listeners


I have always been a huge fan of audiobooks. I have been reading them since they were available only on cassettes. My number 1 priority when purchasing audiobooks was a practical one: I used them to improve my English. They were a fun way to learn pronunciation and new words.

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Then I started to enjoy the stories and the information they conveyed as well, since I have always been keen on both fiction and non-fiction books. At that point, they were already available on CDs, and, whenever I went to the US on business trips, I would make a point of purchasing a number of audiobooks at Barnes and Noble. They came in huge boxes, some containing up to 10 CDs, which made them hard to pack and bring back home. But the sacrifice was well worth it.

With the advent of the iPod, I graduated to e-files. Then I could download dozens of audiobooks on my device and carry them along happily in my pocket. Although I prefer reading books, listening to them has its advantages, as you can multitask as you do it – in my case, I can only listen to audiobooks and do other things at the same time if the latter are mechanical and do not require concentration: non-intellectual, menial work. I can’t listen to a story while I do my tax returns, for example, or when I’m filling in a business spreadsheet. However, listening to audiobooks while you are doing the dishes, cleaning your house, shopping for groceries, riding a bike, working out at the gym or going for a walk is an awesome experience. Lying on the beach is also a good moment to have your audiobook on. If you have not done that yet, it’s an experience I strongly recommend. You will not regret it.

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By now, I have a huge library of audiobooks from Audible.com, and, in this post, I am going to list five of my all-time favorites. Some of them are fiction, others, non-fiction. I don’t discriminate, and you shouldn’t either. The more exposure to different kinds of books you get, the more broad-minded you will become. It’s enlightening to start to see the world from as many different perspectives as you can. Here’s my list;

  • The Exorcist (written and narrated by William Peter Blatty): I’m fascinated by this story and have been exposed to it in every shape and form. I have read the print book a couple of times, watched the movie dozens of times and I have it as an audiobook too. I consider it a classic in all respects. It’s thrilling, exciting and you can’t turn it off once you start listening to it. The story can ben interpreted on so many levels it would be hard not to please the fussiest reader (listener). Very literally, it can be read as the story of a teenage girl possessed by the Devil. Metaphorically, one can interpret the novel as an allegory of the battle between good and evil you go through when are young and vulnerable, not having made your main decisions in life yet. It can be also be read as how we fear what we don’t know, and, also, as how powerful motherly love can be.

 

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  • Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë, narrated by Juliet Stevenson): This is the quintessential romantic novel. The funny thing is that it’s not the love story per se that sustains my interest in this book – which I must have read/listened to a dozen times. I love the gothic atmosphere of Lowood, the charity school for poor and orphaned girls Jane grew up in; later one, Thornfield Hall, the house she works as governess seems like a fantastic place to live in, with its dark atmosphere of mystery and the horror emanating from the inexplicable cries and yells that come from the attic of the old mansion. I relish the rough and unforgiven countryside she runs into, when she tries to escape her failed marriage to Mr. Rochester: The humidity of the weather, the rough beauty of the heather, and the wild rugged rocky terrain of the desolate Yorkshire landscape. If you share this peculiar taste for gloom, you are more than welcome to join in the listening of this masterpiece.

 

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  • The World According to Garp (written by John Irving and narrated Michael Prichard): This novel was my first contact with New England writer John Irving. I first had the book in print. I may have still been in college at the time, and the story had a strong impact on me. I had never come across anything so strange and new: The book was funny, sad, weird, ironic and poignant. The fact that the story was located in a small college town and the main characters lived on the campus made me fall in love with the academic life. Possibly, reading Garp made me want to become a writer for the first time in my life. Feminism plays a strong role in the novel and that, also, opened my eyes to what many typical Latin American males like myself could not see at the time. This is basically the story of a very independently-minded nurse, Ellen, who decides to get impregnated by a fatally wounded Second-World-War pilot who comes under her care in a coma, as a vegetable. However, she notices, he is able to keep an erection. Ellen sees that as a unique opportunity to have a child and avoid any dealings with the father, as it’s clear the patient will not live much longer. So she takes measures into her own hands, so to speak, and ends up pregnant. Garp, the kid born out of this strange connection, is named after what she understood the father’s name was, as the pilot could only babble some words.

 

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  • When You are Engulfed in Flames (written and narrated by David Sedaris): Sedaris is the ultimate comedian of our times. In this sixth collection of essays, the openly gay writer remains as ironic and outrageous as ever. A typically jaded New Yorker (despite the fact that he was born and grew up in Rayleigh, North Carolina – into a very dysfunctional family of Greek origin, whose members he ruthlessly depicts in his stories), this audiobook is ideal to listen to on a long car or bus trip. It will keep you laughing throughout the journey, as you hear his troubles trying to make coffee without water; the anecdotes he tells about the friends he made living in the countryside of France; his experience, while on a plane, having a throat lozenge fall from his mouth into the lap of the asleep passenger sitting next to him, with whom he happened to have had a row minutes before. Hilarious.

 

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  • The Kid Stays in the Picture (written and narrated by Robert Evans): is the autobiography of mega-powerful Hollywood producer Robert Evans. It tells the gripping story of his rise and fall. If you like cinema in general, especially the great movies that came out of North American studios in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you will love to listen to the audiobook. Evans was one of the most powerful producers of his day, having close contact with the greatest celebrities of the time, such as Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Mia Farrow, and Ali MacGraw, to whom he was married. The story is so outrageous, funny, and revelatory that it was turned into a film documentary in 2002. You will hear compelling backstage stories of how movies such as Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, Chinatown, andThe Godfather and were cast and made.

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Warning: it goes without saying that audiobooks must be unabridged and well-read. Also, it’s important that you like the reading voice. Therefore, listen to the sample before completing your purchase.

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

Fascinating Facts about Three of Velázquez’s Most Famous Paintings


If you are a fan of the works of Diego Velázquez, considered by many the painter of painters, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the information I gathered for this article:

1. Volcan’s Forge (1630)

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This is one of the uncommissioned paintings produced by Velázquez right after his first trip to Italy, where he stayed from 1629 to 1631. The painting shows the moment, narrated in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when Apollo, the god of light, shows up at Vulcan’s forge, to tell him that his wife, Venus, the goddess of love, is having an affair with Mars, the god of War. Apollo is identified by the crown of laurel on his head and the orange toga he is wearing. Vulcan, the man on his right, looks horrified and even dangerous. He seems to be working on an armor for Mars himself.

Velázquez had become heavily influenced by Italian art during his trip. This is noticeable in this work by the choice of subject matter – mythology – and by the study of the male nude. However, Velázquez, being the great artist that he was, could not help but add a personal touch to the painting: as we can see, although the bodies replicate in their perfection and athleticism the idealization of the Greek-Roman statuary, the men’s faces look common, contemporary and even ugly. The exaggerated expressions of surprise and shock are a characteristic of the Baroque movement, which did not refrain from showing emotion. There is also an almost comic element to the painting, as it does not seem to treat Mythology with the respect it inspired in other painters. Apollo looks rather full of himself, which you can tell from his posture and body language, such as the curved back and the raised finger.

It’s also worth pointing out that the painting suggests a tri-dimensional perspective: the figure in the background, for example, looks blurred, as if we were actually seeing him from a greater distance. Some of the figures in the painting are displayed in front of others, a technique used to create the illusion of depth. In addition to that, the work suggests a combination of genre painting – the representation of the daily work in a regular forge – with the mythological theme. This kind of combination was rather unusual at the time.

Moreover, some critics claim the painting had the objective of enticing prospective patrons: the artist was perhaps trying to show off his draftsmanship, demonstrating how he could depict the male nude in different positions, in a balanced composition.

2. The Spinners (Las Hilanderas, 1657)

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Critics understand this painting as the representation of the fable of Arachne, as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses. In the story, Arachne was a shepherd’s daughter who developed an extraordinary skill as a weaver. When asked who had taught her how to weave so well, she said she had learned it on her own. This insulted Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and the crafts, who showed up as an old woman to give Arachne a chance to apologize and acknowledge that her skill could only have come from the goddess. Arachne refused to do so, which made Athena furious. She reverted to her natural form and set up a contest with Arachne to prove who could weave better.

The story unfolds in two stages in Velázquez’s painting. In the foreground, we see the contest itself, as it takes place. Athena would be the older woman on the left. The fact that she is the goddess is betrayed by the youth and the skin glow of her exposed leg. Her ability is demonstrated not only by the relaxed attitude in which she operates the spinning wheel but also by the speed of the instrument, whose stokes we can hardly see.

Arachne, on the other hand, is seen working furiously on the right, with her back to the viewer. Arachne’s skillful work is also indicated by the speed of her performance – notice that her left hand moves so fast it seems to have 6 fingers! They are assisted by three other women in their work.

The conclusion of the story can be seen in the background of the painting. Arachne’s final work – represented here by a copy of Titian’s The Abduction of Europe – beats Athena’s. Athena, the woman wearing a helmet in the painting, is so angry that she rips Arachne’s work to threads. The goddess is seen here at the moment when she is casting the curse that will turn Arachne into a spider, so she will spend the rest of her life spinning webs. The obvious lesson is humans must not compete with the gods.

Just like in the previous painting we analyzed, Velázquez’s work in Las Hilanderas is a clever combination of genre and mythological themes. The women in the foreground look just like her contemporaries at a weaving workshop. It’s in the background that we have a more explicit reference to the myth, marked both by the presence of Athena is his Greek clothes and by the replication of the mythological work of Titian.

3. The Toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus, 1647-1651)

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This is the only nude study of a woman painted by Velázquez to reach our days. He seems to have painted three, but two of them are lost. This kind of risqué painting was the object of careful surveillance by the Catholic Church during those harsh times of the Spanish Inquisition. Artists who dared to break the rule faced the threat of excommunication.

This painting, which is sometimes called The Rokeby Venus due to the fact that it was in the Morrit Collection at Rokeby Park, shows the goddess who personifies love and beauty lying with the back to the viewer and looking into a mirror held by her son, the god Cupid. The blurred image in the mirror is explained by the fact that ideal beauty cannot be represented.

However, contrary the trend of the times, Venus looks slimmer than the more voluptuous women usually depicted by other painters. She is also a brunette, while most other representations of Venus show her as a blond. These details all seem to indicate a wish to depict just a beautiful Spanish woman of Velázquez’s own days. Besides, the painting does not show any of the other items that characterize the goddess in other paintings, such as myrtle, roses and jewelry. Except for the presence of the winged Cupid holding the mirror, nothing indicates she is the goddess.

It’s interesting to notice how her curvaceous body is echoed by the rounded belly of Cupid and by the folds of the drapery and bed sheets.

Just like in Velázquez’s most famous painting, Las Meninas, which we discussed in a previous blog post (please click here for the post: https://jorgesette.com/2020/03/14/las-meninas-by-velazquez-under-the-magnifying-glass/), the presence of the mirror, and the fact the goddess seems to be looking at us through it, incorporates an element of mystery to the painting. It seems to stimulate a conversation between the work and the viewer, generating a discussion about the dichotomy between art and reality, representation and fact.

This brings us to the end of our blog post. It’s fascinating to discover the facts, the legends and the stories behind famous works of art. If you have further info, opinions or questions about the paintings discussed above, please don’t hesitate to enter your comments in the box below. We would love to share your perspective with our readers.

Jorge Sette

 

Oliver Sacks – A Review of His Autobiography, On the Move: A Life


Neurologist, researcher, clinician, but especially a great storyteller, Oliver Sacks has millions of fans around the world. His books, which are essentially collections of case studies from his experience looking after patients with brain disorders, can be said to have established a new literary genre.

To me, the appeal of reading Oliver Sacks’ autobiography, On the Move: A Life, was to catch a glimpse of the real man behind the public figure and to learn more about the amazing neurological cases and concepts I’d read about in some of his previous books.

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The autobiography tells us about aspects of his private life that didn’t make their way into his clinical stories. We learn, for example, about his rebel side as a lone motorcycle rider in the 50s and 60s, and about his love of strenuous – and sometimes foolhardy – physical activities, such as extreme weightlifting, swimming in dangerous waters and hiking alone. We also find out about his Jewish family background, his evacuation to a boarding school run by a sadistic headmaster during the second world war, his homosexuality, solitude and 35-year celibacy, and his drug addiction during the 1960s (although he was considered only a weekend “tripper,” having to cope with a challenging job during the week).

What struck me particularly was Sacks’ peripatetic nature, made explicit in the title of the book. It seems he was trying to escape from something, perhaps from himself, due to the fact that he was different – like his patients – but also from his family and the burden of growing up with a schizophrenic older brother. However, being constantly on the move may have been a consequence not only of the restlessness of his soul but also of the strong mental and physical energy he exuded until very late in life.

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Oliver Sacks

What mainly resonated with me was his account of his obsession with writing. Sacks kept journals, taking notes of his experiences, registering his observations, thoughts and feelings. He always had a notebook on hand, even when he went swimming – which, he claimed, stimulated his mind – and he would sometimes dash out of the water to scribble his thoughts down on the pad lying nearby. He may never use those notes when he was writing his books later on, but putting his thoughts down on paper was a powerful way of clarifying his ideas and reflecting on intriguing points; it was like carrying out a conversation with himself.

Laypeople cannot judge how good a doctor Oliver Sacks was. His track record as a researcher and even as a clinician has been disputed a number of times. Also, his decision to base his stories on the cases of real patients caused controversy, as some people claimed it was unethical. His first book, Migraine, was aimed only at the medical community, but it inevitably appealed to a wider public and generated popular interest. He then gave up trying to make his accounts mere reports on medical facts and purposely imbued his stories with themes, metaphors, and humanistic and philosophical considerations, which took his writing to a whole new level.

Sacks’ case studies never give the reader the impression he’s taking advantage of his patients or exploiting them for commercial purposes. He doesn’t come across as someone who’s treating human misery as a circus show. He genuinely seems to care, and his stories, despite the unthinkable suffering of many of the people involved, are mostly uplifting. He reinforces our belief in the power of humans to come to terms with tragedy and even to overcome it.

Following the publication of Awakenings and A Leg to Stand On, Sacks gained notoriety, but it was the publication of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in 1985 that turned him into a public figure and a celebrity recognized worldwide.

One of the most interesting passages in On the Move covers the time Sacks worked as a consultant for the movie Awakenings, based on his book. Although Sacks hadn’t loved the script, which contained some fictitious subplots he wasn’t comfortable with, he decided at one point that the movie was not his, and, therefore, not his responsibility. This realization liberated him, allowing him to adopt a more relaxed attitude and to accept his role in the project.

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Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in Awakenings

In his autobiography, Sacks praises actor Robert De Niro’s extensive and detailed research to play the postencephalitic Leonard L., stating that De Niro would sometimes stay in character for hours or even days after filming. Sacks also comments on how weird it felt to be mirrored by Robin Williams on the many days they spent together as the actor researched the model behind the character he would portray –  based on Sacks himself. I watched the movie again to write this post and found it a bit dated, lacking a drier, less sentimental approach to the subject. It could have benefited from a wittier and more creative script, since it wasn’t supposed to be a faithful replication of real life. I wonder how much better it might turn out if it was remade today, especially as an HBO production. I loved Robin William’s performance – subtle, subdued and contained. As for Robert De Niro’s, I’m afraid he didn’t convince me in the role of a postencephalitic patient.

In summary, reading On the Move: A Life was as fascinating an experience as reading Sacks’ previous books. His language and fluency are remarkable. He writes through examples; he doesn’t explain or define concepts in technical ways. That’s what makes it easy for us to appreciate his stories.

Reading Sacks’ books, I learned a lot about curious brain conditions I never suspected existed. I became familiar with a wealth of new words and concepts: aphasia, amusia, musicophilia, synesthesia, visual cortex, auditory cortex, Tourette’s syndrome and prosopagnosia, to name just a few. In his wonderful book Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, he made me understand that sign language is just another mode of language, not unlike verbal language in its sophistication and capacity to express all kinds of concepts, both abstract and concrete, through perfectly structured grammar. These kinds of enthralling revelations are the stuff his books are made of. You simply can’t put them down once you get started. On the Move: A Life is equally irresistible.

Sacks found out he had melanoma in his right eye in 2005. When it metastasized to his brain and liver in January 2015, he knew his death was imminent, but he seemed to have already come to terms with it. When he publicly announced his predicament, he added: “I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.” On the Move: A Life gave me a sense of a life well lived, packed with adventures, experiences, profound learning and fulfillment. Oliver Sacks died on August 30, 2015.

Jorge Sette