Review: Perfume – The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Süskind


I have just finished one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. I can’t wrap my head around it, though. I don’t really know what it meant. One can interpret it in a number of ways, and I have been doing that for the past few days. The meaning the author wanted to convey can be as elusive as the book’s subject matter: SCENT. 

There was a copy of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Süskind, at my mother’s house when I was in college. I never touched it. I’m glad I didn’t, as I’m sure I wouldn’t have liked it then, being too young to deal with its abstractions. Now I read the English translation from the German by John E. Woods: The language is amazing, a pleasure in its own right. I wonder what it sounds likes in the original. There’s a movie based on the book, but most of my friends told me it wasn’t nearly as good as the novel. So I guess I won’t see it.

The content of the book wafts from the page in its mixture of aromatic words, fragrant images, perfumed beauty, pungent corruption, and putrid evil. What does it mean to be human? What can satisfy a person? This is what the story seems to ask. Read this masterpiece and let’s discuss it. 

However, after reading the book, you will never think of scent, odor, perfume, and stench – or France in the 18th century for that matter – in the same way again.

Have you read the book? What are your thoughts about it? Let us know.

Jorge Sette

Six Stunning Houses in Literature


I have always been fascinated by certain houses in novels. They exert a strange power over me, especially if they are part of gothic stories. Maybe because I have been living in apartments for more than half of my life now, I am somewhat jealous of the large spaces, yards, porches, gardens, the lack of noisy neighbors, and maybe the safety of the proximity of the ground those houses provide – despite the fact that I was never in an earthquake, and, as a consequence, never experienced the trauma caused by these events, which causes most people who have been through them to wish not to live far from the ground.

I lived in a house for some time growing up in Recife, and those were some of the best years of my life. Of course, living there as a distracted child, then as a sullen and hormone-crazed teenager, and finally as an ultra-busy college student, I never fully appreciated what I had back then. I took it for granted. Then, I left the city, came to live in São Paulo, and, presently, my mother sold it and bought a huge apartment, which I fell in love with too, while I went there on vacation. 

Well, all this is beyond the point, however. What I want to do in this post is just to list book houses that I felt particularly close to or fell in love with. Not all these books are classics, but they have always been popular and famous.

The houses in this post are not listed in order of preference. The list is random to a certain extent, as I wouldn’t be able to actually rank them in terms of the impact they had in my imagination. Here they are:

  1. Wuthering Heights (Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë): Rustic, uncomfortable, subjected to the rough weather conditions of the Yorkshire moors, this was the house that brought Cathy and Heathcliff together – two of most beloved and passionate characters in literature. Becoming orphans at an early age, they grew up like savages, free and wild, running and playing around the dreary surroundings of the house, and eventually falling in love with each other. Cathy was the daughter of the place’s owner, Mr. Earnshaw,  who died when she was still a child, and Heathcliff was a gypsy boy her father found in the streets of Liverpool on one of his business trips, and brought home to live with the family. The house mirrors all the brutality and violence of the novel’s plot. In addition to that, Cathy became the ghost that, in the future, would haunt Wuthering Heights forever, driving Heathcliff crazy.

2. Manderley (Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier): Owned by the wealthy Mr. Maximilian de Winter, the house is described in all its beauty. I love houses by the sea and this, located in breathtaking Cornwall, is one of them. Besides, there’s the mystery surrounding the widowed owner’s first wife, Rebecca, who seems to have drowned. She was rumored to have been on top of her game, beautiful, sophisticated, well-connected, adored by the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Denvers,  who would later give Max’s second wife (who remains nameless to the reader throughout the novel) a hard time. However, signs abound that there was something off about all that perfection during the first marriage. Did Rebecca’s personality really match the architectural magnificence of landscaped Manderley?

3. Thornfield Hall (Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë): This is a different case altogether from the houses listed before. The main attraction is the mystery that involves the place. I lived in the UK for almost two years, but never had the chance to visit Yorkshire or see heathers. However, both Wuthering Heights  and Jane Eyre, novels written by two sisters, fascinate me. Who wouldn’t become excited reading about a house with a mysterious attic, hiding a crazy woman? That’s the most important thing about gothic Thornfield Hall: Mr. Rochester, the romantic lead, has his first wife locked up in the attic, mad as a March Hare, while Jane knew nothing about it.

4. Gatsby’s mansion in Long Island (The Great Gatsby, by Scott Fitzgerald): The green light at Daisy’s dock, which Gatsby stares endlessly, signaling how close and yet so far the woman he has always loved lives with her wealthy husband Tom Buchanan, makes one of the attractions of the book. The green light is a powerful metaphor for ambition, desire and the struggle for great accomplishments at any cost. Gatsby, the man, personifies the American dream: from a poor background, he rose to acquire a mansion, expensive cars, and a glamorous lifestyle. He also constantly gives popular and orgiastic parties, but he still needs to get the ultimate prize: Daisy herself. The parties were the means he used to call attention to himself and attract her, but only when he befriends her cousin, Nick Carraway, the story’s narrator, and persuades him to orchestrate a meeting between him and Daisy, does he have a chance to try to rekindle her love. In the novel, the house is described as a nouveau-rich paradise,  with all the extravagances and bad taste of these kinds of places,. Yet,  it does not lack its allure. The green light, seen from his side of the bay, is the strong symbol that stays with the reader long after he finishes the novel.

5. The Dakota Building (Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin): This is an exception, as it’s a condo and not a proper house. The building itself is the setting of one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen, Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski. Later, it was the place where John Lennon and Yoko Ono had an apartment and lived, at the time he was shot and killed right in front of it in 1980. As for Rosemary’s Baby, neither in the movie nor in the novella that inspired it, the Dakota building is mentioned by name. In the book, the location is not even where it’s seen and recognized in the movie by those who are familiar with the Upper West side of Manhattan. However, most people who both read the book and saw the movie agree that the power of the story is Polanski’s credit. He turned what could pass for a simple and not very sophisticated thriller into one of the most successful movies of the 1960s, catapulting actress Mia Farrow, who played the main character, into worldwide fame. One interesting comment I read somewhere was that Polanski, a non-believer in religion, did not want to make it clear that the baby was the devil (or his son). He claimed that this would go against his beliefs. After all, if you don’t believe in God, you can’t believe in the Devil. So, he turned the plot into a more ambiguous and interesting story –  there’s the possibility that Rosemary could be delusional and paranoid, imagining that she was in the clutches of a coven whose leaders are her neighbors in the dark building, and that her own husband and her trusted gynecologist were in on the conspiracy. 

6. The House on Matacavalos Street (Dom Casmurro, Machado de Assis): That is the setting of one of my favorite Brazilian novels. Today, this street, in the district of Santa Teresa, has the name of Riachuelo. When the main character, Bentinho, starts narrating the story of his life, already a middle-aged man, resentful and a recluse, the house he spent his childhood in had already been demolished, but it held such a symbolic reference to him that he had it rebuilt, in exactly the same way, only in another neighborhood. And that’s where he lives in the present, nursing his traumas and pains. The original house was next door to Capitu’s, the main female character of the novel, and the love of his life.  Those neighboring houses witnessed the birth and blossoming of a sweet and romantic love story between teenagers  growing up together. The story is told subjectively from the point of view of an unreliable character, Bentinho, so, as a result, the reader can never be sure whether his estranged wife Capitu was really unfaithful to him, having had an affair and got pregnant by his best friend, Escobar.

What are your favorite book houses? Let us know by leaving your choices in the comments section below.

Jorge Sette

Hemingway’s Views on Writing


In his book Ernest Hemingway on Writing, Larry W. Phillips does a wonderful job of collecting the great author’s thoughts on the field of writing. Phillips draws from various sources including personal letters, books, novels, essays, commissioned articles, and interviews. Sectioning our post in the same way Phillips did with his book, let’s try to summarize some of Hemingway’s most interesting ideas on the topic.

What Writing Is and Does

• Good books are all alike in the sense that they feel true. Communicating genuine experiences to the reader is essential. It’s the writer’s job to convey to the reader feelings, sensations, and even the weather, as he narrates the experience he’s writing about.

• Literature is, after all, poetry written in prose and it should read like that.

• Good books may be reread as many times as the reader wishes: they never lose their mystery, there’s always something new to learn.

The Qualities of a Writer

• Writers need the talent of a Kipling and the discipline of a Flaubert. They also must be intelligent, honest, and disinterested.

• Writers must be able to detect anything that doesn’t sound genuine in their texts. Their minds need to work as radars to avoid artificiality.

• To write novels, writers need to have an inbuilt sense of justice and injustice. Otherwise, they had better be doing something else.

• Writers need to be fast learners. Knowledge of the world is an essential tool for this job.

The Pain and Pleasure of Writing

• You write for two people basically: for yourself (and you need to make it perfect) and for the person you love, so they can read it and share the experience.

• Hemingway says he never suffered when he wrote. He felt empty and horrible when he was not writing. This is the opposite experience of many other writers, as you probably know.

• Writing is a difficult and challenging process, yet, so rewarding. It’s a disease some people are born with.

• Sometimes a writer will need to reread something good he has written in the past to convince himself he can still do it, and then, will continue writing.

• Writing is an obsession. Maybe a vice.

• There are no rules to writing: it may come easily sometimes, and at other times it can seem almost impossible.

The Old Man and the Sea

What to Write About

• Don’t write about your personal tragedies: nobody really cares about them. But you can use your hurt feelings to convey truth in what you are writing.

• A man has to have suffered a lot to write a really funny book.

• Writers should stick to what they know profoundly.

• Readers expect the writer to repeat the same story every time they pick up one of their new books. Don’t do that: the new book is not going to be as popular at the last.

• War is a good subject. Experiencing war can teach writers a lot. Some are jealous because, never having taken part in a war, they can’t write about it firsthand. Other good topics are love, money, avarice, and murder.

Advice to Writers

• At the beginning of your text, write one true sentence. The rest will stem from that.

• Write about what you really feel, not what you are supposed to feel. Only real emotions count.

• Remember the details of the experience that inspires you in order to pass on to the reader real feelings and sensations. Readers should relive your excitement.

• Listen carefully and actively when you talk to people, so you can understand their perspective and use it in your writing. Learn to put yourself in other people’s shoes.

• Hone your observational skills.

• To be truthful, you can’t put only what is beautiful in a novel. You need to add the ugly and the bad.

• Distrust adjectives.

• Write like Cézanne painted: Start with all the tricks and then get rid of all the artifice and bare the truth.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Working Habits

• As you are writing, stop when it’s going well. So the next day you feel energized about the task and pick it up knowing where you are going.

• When you are not writing, don’t think about it, try not to worry about your novel; do something physical or read other books. Let your subconscious work on it.

• Every time you start writing, reread everything you have written so far. When it begins to take too long to cover all the written passages, reread only the last few chapters.

• After writing a novel, give it a couple of months before you start rewriting it. Let it cool off. So it looks and feels fresh in your mind when you go back to it.

• Hemingway needed to be left completely alone to focus on his writing. He said writing, at its best, is a lonely life.

Characters

• Hemingway refused to write about living people. He didn’t wish to hurt anyone. Unless he deliberately wanted to.

• Use what you know as well as other people’s experiences to write fiction, but don’t make them recognizable. Invent it.

• Let people be people, don’t turn them into symbols.

A Farewell to Arms

Knowing what to leave out

• Hemingway compares writing to an iceberg: only the tip shows, but the underwater part is the knowledge the author has about what he’s writing, and it matters.

Obscenity

• Avoid slang (except if it’s needed in dialogue).

• Only use profanity that has existed for 1000 years. It may go out of fashion fast.

• Don’t use profanity merely for its shock value. Make sure it’s really necessary.

Titles

• It takes time to find a good title.

• A great number of good titles comes from the Bible, but they have all been taken.

Other Writers

• Other writers can teach you a lot.

• A selection of books every writer should read: War and Peace and Anna Karenina  (Tolstoy); Madame Bovary (Flaubert);  Buddenbrooks  (Thomas Mann); Dubliners (Joyce); Tom Jones (Fielding); The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky); Huckleberry Finn  (Mark Twain); The Turn of the Screw (Henry James)…

• Authors should write what has not been written before or try to beat dead men (which means: write better than former writers on a certain subject).

• Hemingway thought War and Peace was the best book ever written, but that it would have been even better had Turgenieff written it.

Politics

• Do not follow the political fashions of your time. They are temporary and will wear off soon.

• There is no left and right in writing: only good and bad writing.

• Patriotism does not make good writing either.

• Don’t write about social classes you don’t belong to or don’t know deeply about.

• Writing about politics may get you a good job in government but it won’t make you a great author.

The Sun Also Rises

The Writer’s Life

• Writing is more exciting than the money you make from it.

• When writers make a lot of money, they get used to an expensive lifestyle and have to carry on making money to sustain it. That’s when they compromise.

• Good writers don’t keep their eyes on the market.

• Publicity, admiration, adulation or being fashionable aren’t worth it.

• Writers should be judged on the merit of their writing and not on their personal lives.

• Critics have no right to invade the writer’s personal life and expose it.

• Critics will find hidden symbols and metaphors in a text when they are simply what they are.

Please let us know your opinion about this post.

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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Jorge Amado’s Novels: Marxism, Humor and the Beauty of the African-Brazilian Culture


Jorge Amado (August 10, 2012 – August 6, 2001) was a very prolific Brazilian author, having written more than 30 novels, translated into some 49 languages. Most of his stories are set in the state of Bahia, the region where he was born. His works highlight the brutal economic inequality of the society and the richness of his state’s Afro-Brazilian culture: the empowering traits of the religious cult of Candomblé, the beauty and creativity of its mestizo people, the spicy flavors of the delicious local cuisine, and the rhythms of its music and local dance/martial art (capoeira).

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Salvador, the capital of Bahia, the state Jorge Amado was born in. Photo: April, 2019. Jorge Sette.

Through Amado’s characters, we get to hear the voice of the lower classes, the poor, the fallen and the discriminated against. We also hear the voices of the strong women of Brazil. Despite the fact that his early books were derogatorily characterized as sentimental Marxism, Jorge Amado matured as a writer, as of the late 1950s. With the publication of Gabriela, Clove and Cinammon (1958), his novels became a lot more sophisticated, funny and authentic. Satire became a strong element of his style. The main themes of Jorge Amado’s books, however, remained the same: the lives of the poor people of Bahia, their traditions, the religious syncretism between Catholicism and the African cults, the prejudice and discrimination against the mixed-raced (mestizo) people of Brazil (which, ironically, comprises most of the population!) and open criticism of the hypocritical moral values of the Brazilian upper and middle classes.

Jorge Amado was a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters from 1961 until his death in 2001. Here’s a list of his most popular works.

1.  Captains of the Sands (Capitães da Areia, 1937)

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Captains of the Sands, a rather romanticized account of the lives of a gang of abandoned street kids in the city of Salvador (called the city of Bahia in the book), whose crimes terrorize the local population, may sound a bit tame by today’s standards. After all, the level of real juvenile violence experienced in the big cities of Brazil (exposed in books such as City of God by Paulo Lins, for example) surpass by far what we read in this novel, which takes place in the 1930s.

However, the reader can still be moved and relate to the thesis of how the social-economic context deprives these kids of their innocence and childhood and is ultimately responsible for their corruption and lack of choice. Reminiscent of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, the book focuses on the adventures of the leader of the gang, Pedro Bala (bullet), and five of his closest allies, living off theft and petty crimes, and sleeping in a shack by the sea. We follow their early years as members of the feared gang of the Captains of the Sands and the different paths taken by each of them as they grow older and leave.

2. Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos, 1966)

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It’s surely inconceivable for most Latin American males to accept that it may take more than one man – at one given time – to completely satisfy the many facets of a woman’s life. In this widely successful novel (turned into a hugely popular movie in the 1970s), Jorge Amado adopts a very liberal and perhaps feminist point of view in this respect.

Flor, an adorable young woman in the Bahia of the 1920s, is an expert in the local cuisine. Her recipes are so popular that she decides to open a cooking school for girls. Soon afterwards, she meets and falls in love with the irresistible Vadinho, a typical “malandro” (a bohemian ruffian), an incorrigible rogue who spends most nights gambling and drinking in the company of prostitutes. The marriage takes place against her family’s wishes, as the whole conservative society of the time seems to foresee that it’s doomed. The couple is perfectly matched sexually, though. Vadinho fulfills Flor’s every fantasy and surpasses all her expectations in the bedroom. When he suddenly dies, celebrating Carnival, Flor is left inconsolable.

After a year of mourning, the widow finally marries the local pharmacist, a very decent man called Dr. Teodoro, who has nothing of the passion for life that Vadinho did. Teodoro stands for respectability, tender love, a reliable routine and financial safety. For a while, Flor seems happy and grateful for the arrangement, but it does not take long for her typical ardor to flourish again; she deeply misses Vadinho’s passionate lovemaking. After a couple of months living in this torture, her desire for Vadinho becomes so strong, that it brings him back from the dead. Only Flor can see him, when he appears, always naked, at the most unexpected times. He is invisible to everyone else. What will Flor do about this?

3. The War of the Saints (O Sumiço da Santa, 1988)

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The holy icon of Saint Barbara (or Yansan, the goddess of thunder and lightning, 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, and winks at her fellow passengers and simply walks off through the market quay, 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.

4. The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell  (A Morte e a Morte de Quincas Berro D’Água, 1959)

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This novella tells the strange and hilarious story of a man who, getting fed up with the tyranny of a bossy and nagging wife and the pettiness of the codes of respectability of the lower bourgeoisie, suddenly decides to say goodbye to all that and start a new life as a drunk vagrant in the streets of Bahia. He leaves his family and dedicates himself to the most unthinkable hedonism: getting drunk every night, having sex with prostitutes and becoming the king of the bohemians of Bahia. He craves total freedom, has a legion of loyal followers and admirers, pledging that his tomb will be the endless sea.

When he suddenly dies, however, and faces the danger of having his corpse go through a respectable and catholic wake and burial, four of his closest friends show up to pay his respects and – in a sequence of scenes filled with humor and poetry – steal the corpse (or the living-dead man – as the reader is never quite sure how dead he really is) to take him for a last night of celebration in the city, before his second and final death.

On a deeper level, the story investigates the creation of popular myths and the distortion of reality prompted by the ingrained custom of gossiping, so typical of Brazil and Bahia, in particular.

Have you ever read any of Jorge Amado’s novels? How do you like his books? Please leave a comment below.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.