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.

 

 

 

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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

 

 

What do Classic Novels have in Common?


Classic novels and the Western Canon (Shakespeare, Swift, Cervantes, Austen, Dickens, Flaubert, Melville, etc.) are sometimes used as synonyms. In this post, however, we apply a broader definition to the former, extending the concept to a certain category of written stories that may have originated in any part of the world, as long as they sustain the set of common characteristics we discuss here.

In his famous 1986 short essay, “Why Read the Classics?” Italian journalist and writer Italo Calvino gives an all-encompassing and powerful definition of classic novels:

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

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Italo Calvino

We couldn’t agree more. In addition to that, we would argue that classic novels share the following traits:

Language: One of the main features of classic books is the careful use of the language they employ, which leans towards the innovative, the unique and the artistic (meaning: evocative, non-referential language that stands in its own right, for its beauty or unconventionality). The classics normally establish new standards of language use; they formalize in writing what was once only oral, for example. Classic writers create new linguistic facts: expressions, words, metaphors. They coin new lexicon

Originality: Classics convey new perspectives and worldviews; they provide groundbreaking insights into the human experience. They change the way readers see the universe. When reading the classics, we sometimes discover where certain ideas came from, who first expressed them. We realize that people didn’t always have the same feelings their contemporaries share about things and that sometimes it’s possible to pinpoint the specific moment the innovative thought was introduced.

Freshness: Classics are books that can be reinterpreted over and over again. They adapt effortlessly to new eras and offer a lens through which different realities can be analyzed. Pride and Prejudice is not read today in the same way as was when first published in 1813. Modern readers add layers of new personal and communal meanings to their interpretation of the original text, experiencing it in completely novel but still relevant ways.

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Seminal: Classics inform and influence innumerable artworks and ideas. Contemporary movies, TV series, and literature, for example, are constantly borrowing and repurposing the themes, characters, plots, and even the language of the classics. Who doubts that Jaws (both the book and movie versions) is a modern-day Moby Dick?

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Moby Dick

Longevity: They endure and remain in print. The strength of their plots, the charisma of their characters, and the essentiality of their ideas get handed down from one generation of readers to the next. They resonate with the reader in primeval and timeless ways. You will probably find an edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wildein most bookstores you walk into around the globe.

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Oscar Wilde

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

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

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

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

10 Interesting Facts about Clarice Lispector: One of the Greatest Brazilian Writers of All Time


Writing in Portuguese makes it difficult for many Brazilian authors to gain worldwide recognition. Besides, a large portion of our literature focuses on issues such as the investigation of Brazilian identity, as well as explorations of local values and culture, which makes it, perhaps, less relevant for readers from other countries.

Things seem to be changing, however.  Acclaimed Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar, for example, was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize for A Cup of Rage,published in Brazil in 1978.

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Clarice Lispector has always been an exception: a Brazilian writer known around the world. One of the reasons for this is that the plots and characters of her novels are far from traditional; Lispector’s characters tend to embark on nuanced interior journeys, exploring incredibly complex worlds. Nothing much happens in terms of action or the development of typical character arcs. Her books throw a unique light on different aspects of the human nature. If the stream of consciousness she often uses can make her prose somewhat hermetic and more challenging to read, it also allows her stories to travel internationally more easily.

However, even those who enjoy her work may not know the following facts about the famous author:

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1. Clarice Lispector was said to look like Marlene Dietrich and write like Virginia Woolf. Her Eastern European looks were indeed striking and uncommon in Brazil. Her family had migrated to Brazil after the First World War, fleeing the pogroms against Jews in the region.

2. Her mother was raped in Ukraine during one of those pogroms and consequently contracted syphilis, which led to her untimely death a couple of decades later. It looks like Clarice was conceived as a possible attempt to cure the disease (a common superstition in those days claimed that giving birth to a child could cure the infection). Of course, this did not have the intended effect, and Clarice carried the burden of guilt for not having been able to save her mother for the rest of her life. Motherhood, or the lack thereof, is a recurring theme in her stories.

3. She was brought up in Recife, a city in the northeast of Brazil, where she went to one of the best public schools in the region, Ginásio Pernambucano. She was 14 when her family finally moved to Rio.

4. Clarice Lispector spent much of her life living in different countries and cities, as the wife of diplomat Maury Gurgel Valente. She lived in Naples, Bern, and Washington, among other places. Her natural intelligence, beauty, and cultivated manners, together with the experience of living in different parts of the world, made her of one of the most sophisticated women of her time.

5. Clarice had two sons: Pedro and Paulo. Pedro was so precocious that he learned the maid’s local dialect in Switzerland in a couple of days, frightening his parents. However, this was an early indicator of mental problems, and later on, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

6. Clarice was not a very political person, although she was aware of and hurt by the injustices and inequalities she observed in her adopted country. During the beginning of the hardest of the dictatorship years in Brazil, in the late 60s, she took part in demonstrations and spoke out against the military coup.

7. Close friends claim that Clarice was a lonely and difficult woman, especially after she left her husband in the late 50s and decided to live with her sons in Rio. She was addicted to sleeping pills, but when she couldn’t sleep she would call her friends to discuss her personal problems at all times of day or night.

8. Clarice survived a fire started when she fell asleep with a lit cigarette in her hand. At this time she lived in an apartment in Leme, a stretch of beach close to the fashionable Copacabana of the 1960s. The third-degree burns left her badly scarred for life, especially her right hand – which she used for writing!

9. Clarice had a totally modern and original way of writing. Themes related to motherhood, as well as reflections on how she missed her own mother, figured largely in her work. Her ideas were heavily influenced by the philosopher Spinoza and the language she used made her an extraordinarily creative and original writer.

10. She wrote nine books, a play, a number of short stories, and some children’s literature. She was also a journalist and had columns in important Brazilian newspapers, where she usually wrote crônicas (a typically Brazilian genre, in which authors narrate facts about simple daily experiences in interesting and original ways) or dispensed advice for women readers, under her own name or pen names. She died of ovarian cancer in 1977 at age 57.

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Have you ever read any of the works of the brilliant writer? Share your opinions with us.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Makes Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn So Great?


Mark Twain’s watershed novel has been one of the most controversial and disputed pieces of literature ever since its publication in 1884. Describing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ernest Hemingway once said:

“American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

Many, however, would vehemently disagree with that statement. While readers from one camp call it “the Great American Novel,” others – including writer Louisa May Alcott – condemn its supposed lack of artistry, the use of vulgar language, and even claim it’s racist. To this day, it’s frequently banned in a number of schools in the US on the grounds that it corrupts youth.

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In this post, we want to explore the motives of the supportive camp. After all, those who love this novel can’t get enough of it. Why? Here’s a brief summary followed by a list of the most appealing traits of the book.

Summary:

For those who are not familiar with this famous novel, it’s the sequel to the simpler and more child-friendly The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In the first book, the protagonist is Tom, who lives in the fictitious town of St. Petersburg (inspired by the real city of Hannibal, Missouri) on the Mississippi river in the 1830s.

Tom is an imaginative kid, who leads a regular life, goes to the local school and lives with his younger brother Sid and his cousin Mary under the vigilant and protective eyes of Aunt Polly, his dead mother’s sister. Although Tom and Huck (short for Huckleberry) are best friends, the latter, as the son of the abusive town’s drunk, lives a completely deregulated life, playing and roaming the streets of St. Petersburg in total freedom. He is obviously the envy of all the other kids in the region. At the end of the book, after taking part in a number of adventures throughout the narrative, Tom and Huck get rich, having discovered a great amount of money stolen and hidden in a cave by a gang of robbers. The well-to-do and religious Widow Douglas, one of the town’s luminaries, becomes then Huck’s guardian, with the job of “sivilizing” him.

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At the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we learn that 13-year-old Huck cannot stand the civilized life he’s living at Widow Douglas’s house. He finds the clothes uncomfortable, the table manners constrictive, and the school lessons boring. Moreover, he doesn’t understand or agree with all the religious moralism inflicted on him by the authoritarian widow’s sister, Miss Watson. At this point, he gets kidnapped by his father, who wants to get his hands on the kid’s money. Huck is forced to live with him in a shack across the river.

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Huck realizes he has no choice: he must either submit to living with his abusive father or go back to the horrors of the so-called civilized life under the righteous wing of Widow Douglas. So he decides to fake his own murder and run away. As he tries to escape, Huck bumps into Miss Watson’s black slave Jim, who is also running away, having heard that his mistress is planning to sell him. They get a raft and start floating down the Mississippi river on their way to freedom. Wherever that may be. The novel is the story of that journey.

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The Metaphors:

One of the most enchanting aspects of the novel is Twain’s powerful use of metaphors and symbols. The motif of man in close contact with water – be it sea or river – and its associated subconscious meanings is common in Western literature (take Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, The Old Man and the Sea, and Life of Pi, for example). The monstrous big Mississippi River in Twain’s novel is also said to stand for a pagan God, both good and evil, leading and interfering with the minute lives that dare to float on its waters; the many storms in the novel seem to be prophetic, signalling approaching turmoil and difficulties. Life on the raft sums up the benefits and downsides of freedom (wild, unconfined and dangerous), in contrast to the oppressive civilized life Huck got to know for a while.

The Innovative Language: 

With The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for the first time North American literature breaks away from the limitations of formal and pompous language. The story is told by Huck in his own particular vernacular, which replicates oral language. Ungrammatical sentences and misspellings highlight the expressive force and energy of regional dialects. In the introduction to the novel, Mark Twain explains his linguistic choices:

“In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.”

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Humor:

Despite its deep themes (the distorted values of civilization, the hypocrisy of the official religion, inequality, and freedom), the novel pulses with satire. Among the hilarious passages, we’d pinpoint: the description of local superstitions (the bad luck that touching a rattlesnake’s skin can bring about, for example); Jim’s fear of spirits in the fog and of witches in the woods; Huck’s inability to pretend he’s a girl in an encounter with a newcomer to the town; Huck and Jim’s endless discussions about the French language, the wisdom of King Solomon, and the lifestyle of kings.

The Beauty of Descriptive Passages:

The book does not want for poetic strength, as it describes life on a raft, dawn on the river, or a big storm in progress:

“Pretty soon it darkened up and begun to thunder and lighten; so the birds was right about it. Directly it begun to rain, and it rained like all fury, too, and I never see the wind blow so. It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest—FST! it was as bright as glory and you’d have a little glimpse of tree-tops a-plunging about, away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before.”

Huck’s charisma: 

The protagonist is a very likable character: good-hearted, loyal and sensitive. Most readers can identify with his rebellion against the constraints of civilization and the moral dilemma he goes through as he’s helping set Jim free. After all, the events narrated in the story take place long before the American Civil War and the official abolition, in a time when the act of helping to free a slave was illegal and against the established social and moral order. This is how Twain verbalizes the main point of the story:

“A book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat”.

However one feels towards The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after reading it, rest assured that it is very unlikely they will remain INDIFFERENT to the experience.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

Five of My Favorite Narrative Settings


Readers know the importance of compelling settings in novels – we hope writers do too. Some people would claim that character and plot are king. However, it’s not unusual for readers to first recall a certain region, a piece of geography, a neighborhood or city depicted in a novel when they think of it. While these settings may be the context for the whole story, sometimes, they are the backdrop against which only a number of important or climatic scenes develop.

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The Cliffs of Insanity – From The Princess Bride

Well-written settings create atmosphere; they may drive the plot, and even become as important as a main character. Often, readers are so enraptured by book settings (although the story will most certainly take place in a different time or era), they will wish to visit some of them. Yours truly, for example, is a stickler for visiting places depicted in books – or in their movie adaptations for that matter – when my travels take me anywhere near them.

In this post I’m sharing with the reader some of my favorite settings in novels. Please let me know how you feel about them. Also, if you wish, list and describe your favorite settings in the comments section below.

51Js6G5I9PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Curious incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. The London Underground.

After seeing the London Tube through the eyes of the highly functioning – yet socially inadequate – autistic 15-year-old Christopher Boone, the charismatic narrator of this stunning novel, readers will agree the Underground is the perfect metaphor for the lair of imaginary or real monsters we all need to fight and overcome in the course of our lives. The Tube, with its vibrant atmosphere, train noises, buskers and the multitudes of daily travelers rushing down its corridors. can certainly be an overwhelming experience for someone like Chris, or readers who are not entirely comfortable with crowds and frenzy.


518A0CQ6VVLWuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte.
Yorkshire.

This region of northern England, swept by winds and storms, as depicted by Emily Bronte, is the ultimate expression of a romantic and dramatic landscape: wild, visceral, and passionate. This remarkable setting, of course, matches the personalities of the novel’s unforgettable characters, Cathy and Heathcliff, who roam the region’s bleak moors – alive and dead! The historic county of Yorkshire is, by the way, the largest and one of the greenest in the UK. 

 

2666The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe. New York City.

Wall Street, Park Avenue and the Bronx are forever linked in many readers’ minds to the fate of naïve bond trader Sherman McCoy, one of the masters of the universe – in his own egocentric and distorted self-assessment. At a key plot point, Sherman misses the exit into Manhattan on his way back from Kennedy Airport, where he drove to pick up his mistress Maria. The journey ends up in a nightmare, when the couple gets involved in a hit-and-run accident, killing a black young man in the Bronx. Sherman, the superrich yuppie, becomes the perfect target: he will be used as a scapegoat and brought down by the petty political interests of the various ethnical and professional lobbying groups of 1980s New York.

9780544173767_p0_v2_s1200x630The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. The Cliffs of Insanity.

The first image that crosses my mind whenever I hear someone mention The Princess Bride are the Cliffs of Insanity (gosh, do I love this silly name!). Although this is a fictitious setting, the movie version – which was the first contact most of us had with this incredibly entertaining post-modern fairy tale – uses the real breathtaking Cliffs of Moher, in County Clare, Ireland, as the location. Facing the Atlantic, those rugged imposing cliffs are among Ireland’s most spectacular natural sights.

 

41hqc685dlL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Detroit, Michigan. USA.

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974”. This is one of the most intriguing opening lines in contemporary fiction. Middlesex is not only a powerful and moving journey into human sexuality, gender issues and identity, but also the three-generation saga of a Greek-American family, the Stephanides, migrating from a small village overlooking Mount Olympus all the way to Detroit, Muchigan – an improbable destination, where readers experience the story of the city from the Prohibition days, moving through its glorious days as the Motor City, and witnessing the race riots at the end of the 1960s – and beyond. An American epic.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette