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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 Books You Should Read to Understand Brazil Better


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

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

1. The Brazilians, by Joseph Page.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. A Death in Brazil, by Peter Robb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

Toxic Relationships Between Parents and Kids in Fiction


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

1. The Prince and the Pauper – by Mark Twain

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

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

2. American Pastoral – by Philip Roth

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

“The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.” 

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

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

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

4. My Sister’s Keeper – by Jodi Picoult

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

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

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

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

10 Cool Questions about Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda – A great love story (for your book club)


Oscar and Lucinda is one of those books that grow in the reader’s mind over time. The unforgettable and powerfully written novel by Peter Carey, winner of the 1988 Man Booker Prize, tells the improbable love story between a religiously obsessed English young man and a compulsive Australian heiress.

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Oscar has a gambling problem. He loves horse races. Lucinda, on the other hand, adores glassworks and cannot resist a game of cards.

Lucinda purchases the oldest Glass Factory in Sydney. The story takes place in the 19th century and culminates with the couple’s joining forces on the biggest (and strangest) bet of their lives: gambling on the transportation of a glass church across the Outback from Sydney to the remote Bellingen, 400 km up the coast of New South Wales. This is certainly one of the most outlandish and beautiful literary visions I’ve come across as a reader in a long, long time.

In 1997, the novel was made into an acclaimed movie directed by Gillian Armstrong, starring Cate Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes.

 

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Cate Blanchett – who plays Lucinda in the movie version.

 

The questions below are fairly open-ended. They are intended to be incorporated into the list of others you are possibly already using during your book club’s sessions. It helps to have a mediator to conduct the discussions. There are no absolute right or wrong answers, so I would recommend the members of the group be flexible, welcoming and respectful of other people’s opinions and interpretations. Enjoy:

1. Where did Oscar live as a child (country, region, city)? Where did Lucinda live as a child (country, region, city)?

2. Why did Oscar start moving away from his father’s religion to become an Anglican?

3. What did Oscar do for a living? What about Lucinda?

4. Where/When did Oscar and Lucinda first meet? And what was Oscar’s greatest fear at that point?

5. What feelings developed when they decided to play cards for the first time, and how did the storm change the situation?

6. How did Oscar morally reconcile religion and gambling?

7. How does a Glassworks or glass factory reflect Lucinda’s own personality?

8. Would you consider Lucinda a feminist ahead of her time? Give us three examples of her behavior in the story that would justify this idea.

9. What is the passage (or passages) in the novel that will probably linger in the readers’ minds after they’ve finished it?

10. If you were Peter Carey, the author, list three things you would have changed about the novel before it was published. Your answer can be about the characters, the plot, the location, the times or the ending.

Choose a couple of the questions above and answer them in writing in the comments space below, if you wish.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

 

 

Stephen King Teaches Us How To Write Well


Writing is a very personal (and messy) activity. Effective writers do not necessarily follow the same writing process. Besides, writing can be difficult and painful. According to a well-known quote by Hemingway, There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Having said that, I firmly believe that a beginning writer can benefit from some guidelines and tips, before developing his own writing method, style, and voice. I like to teach my language students the basic steps of a methodology called process writing, which puts the drafting at the center, rather than the final product. The more drafts a writer produces, the better. Of course, you need to know that beyond a certain point, your writing can begin to deteriorate, so it takes practice to develop the gut feeling of when to stop working on a certain piece. A good editor can help you with that. If you want to know more about process writing, please refer to a previous post I wrote on the topic: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1ot

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In his best selling manual ON WRITING, author Stephen King draws on his long and productive experience as a successful fiction writer to give us some help on how to write well. Besides being very interesting, as the author mixes anecdotes of his personal life and backstage accounts of how some of his most famous books came to life, this manual also works as a very useful introductory guide on how to write effectively. I’ve selected five of his best tips to share with you and took the liberty to add my personal comments to his suggestions. But you must read his book for a more comprehensive idea of the subject. His pieces of advice are mainly about fiction, but I believe many of his points apply to good writing in general

 

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1. Read a lot and write a lot. Stephen King recommends you spend at least 4 to 6 hours a day either reading or writing. He says he aims for writing 2,000 words a day. But this piece of advice varies from author to author. I heard Lionel Shriver, another famous writer, say that she sticks to 1,000 words a day. Malcolm Gladwell, in his brilliant book Outliers, claims that to achieve world-class mastery in any field, one needs to dedicate some 10,000 hours to it. He uses The Beatles, the lawyer Joseph Flom, Bill Gates and other successful people as examples. This is a hard call, but I thought I should be honest with you and warn you about the work ahead if you wish to become a star.

 

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2. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered. Philip Roth, considered by many on of the greatest American authors, stirred controversy, shock and strong criticism within the Jewish community when he published his first books. By the end of the 60s, he wrote an outrageously funny novel about a man obsessed with masturbation, which definitely put him on the black list of polite, civilized people with good taste. You can’t write to please. You write to express your truth, to reveal the hypocrisy of your community, to probe into the souls of real human beings. This is likely to cause you trouble. Salmon Rushdie spent decades in hiding, threatened to be killed, after allegedly insulting the members of the Muslim faith. This is a very high price to pay. Wearing the pleasant social masks most people don’t hesitate to put on and being a genuine and respected writer are incompatible. Are you prepared to deal with it?

3. Most of us do our best in a place of our own. I beg to disagree. Most of my writing is done in public cafés and bistros. The presence of pulsating, vibrant life around me gets my creative juices going and helps me put my ideas down on paper. However, I agree that you need to isolate yourself mentally, if not physically, to be able to produce effective writing. If you can’t do that in public, find a nice office, or a room, furnish it with everything you need to write well and close that door. You should be able to concentrate and avoid interruptions wherever you are.

4. A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me.The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question. It looks like Stephen King tends to start his stories from a situation he imagined. He often conjures what-if scenarios to come up with something compelling and unusual. What-if can boost a whole lot of interesting ideas in the brainstorming phase of writing. Not every writer does that, though. An alternative is to start from a different, unique character from whom the story will stem and possibly take unpredictable turns. Most Hollywood scriptwriters use yet another method: they start by outlining and putting a firm structure in place. They think in terms of plot, with defined turning points, clearly delineated phases the hero goes through, character arcs and an edifying end. If you are interested in finding out more about how to write scripts following the Hollywood model, I would recommend Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythical Structure for Writers, based on the mythological studies of Joseph Campbell, presented in the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

 

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

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

Au revoir

Jorge Sette