Which novels do you wish you had written yourself?


When you are at the stage of brainstorming for a nonfiction blog post or a piece of creative writing, it’s inevitable to remember a couple of articles, books and novels related to the topic you read at some point and enjoyed. They will be a source of inspiration and influence in your writing, making you somehow even slightly jealous, wishing you had thought of that first. But, of course, you would also have needed the right language to encapsulate it. After all, more important than the plot itself is how you say things.

Take the book Life of Pi by Yann Martel, for example, whose original idea some people claim was stolen from our Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar. Well, plagiarism is hard to establish, there are a lot of gray areas, but one thing I’m sure of: Martel did not write the same story nor, most definitely, used the same language as Scliar. Jorge Luis Borges, in his marvelous piece Pierre Menard, Autor del Quixote, from the book Ficciones takes this idea even further, asserting that a book written with the exact same words by a different author at a different time would be read in a new way, due to the dissimilar historic contexts, and therefore would not be the same book at all. I agree.

After reading a comment on Facebook by a friend saying that she is full of ideas for blog posts but do not find the time to write them (yes, we all know how teachers are busy!), I made a joke saying that all my good ideas had already been stolen by the likes of Shakespeare, Tolstoy or Philip Roth.

Then I though for a moment, and decided to give serious consideration as to which novels I really wished I had written and why. This is my humble list:

Books I wish I had written

Books I wish I had written

1.The Human Stain, by Philp Roth: it’s hard to discuss this book without giving a bit too much away, so apologies for the spoilers. The story of a light-skinned black boy who grabs the opportunity to pass for a Jew in 1950’s America and later becomes a Classics Professor at a small college is a complex account of the choices you make in life and the responsibilities and consequences that come with them. The need to make concessions and compromise basic values to achieve a bigger goal is the central theme of the book. The deep moral dilemma you face when you take such a radical decision, including the necessity to abandon and cut relations with your family and community to start a new life somewhere else as a completely different person, is evaluated by the author from unusual and unexpected angles in this impressive book. As irony is the hallmark of Roth, the book starts with the most paradoxal of incidents: the professor, noticing that two of the students enlisted in his class never seem to be present, asks the class the question which brings about his doom: “do they exist or are they spooks?” The latter being an old loaded word, a racist epithet for blacks. It turns out that the Professor, never having seen those students before, meant spooks in the most common sense of the word, that is, ghosts, and, after all the pressure and hassle he goes through, without support from any of his colleagues and students – for a number of political reasons – he decides to resign and end his career. I would love to have written this story for its universality: any minority can identify with what Coleman, the Jewish/Black professor, goes through, and can easily put themselves in his shoes. Given the opportunity would you do the same? Would you change your race, color, nationality, sexual orientation or gender? Or would you just give up all of your chances of fully growth and spend the rest of your life as a second class citizen in a society that will only offer you the fulfillment of your whole potential if you are the right color?

The Human Stain

The Human Stain

2. Dom Casmurro, by Machado de Assis: this must be the book I reread most often in my entire life. I know it almost by heart. What attracts me is the way the characters are so well-rounded and fully developed, leaping out of the page as if you could go for a walk and talk to them. This does not mean, however, that you will know them any better. This is the whole point of the story. The dissimulation, the fact that we never know anyone completely. The impossibility of dealing with only one version of the reality. I can’t get enough of the artistry of the author, who, narrating the story in the first person, never lets the reader be sure about what really happened: was the main character’s wife an adulterer? Is the boy she gives birth to his son or his best friend’s? The doubt will corrupt his marriage and ultimately destroy all the love in his life. He becomes empty and isolated, having chosen the version of reality which will cause him the most pain and damage. Don’t we all choose the latter?

Dom Casmurro

Dom Casmurro

3. We need to talk about Kevin, by Lionel Shriver: a professional woman is in love with her work and her husband. She writes and publishes travel guides, having the chance to go places, tour interesting and remote regions, avoiding getting stuck in a housewife’s rut, being independent most of the time. Yet, she can count on a loving husband to comfort and look after her when she comes back home after a long trip: this is a dream life. She has the best of both worlds. Then, what else is it that society claims will make every woman even happier and more complete: to have a baby. From the birth of Kevin, her firstborn, to the dantesque crime scene at the end of the book, We need to talk about Kevin reads like a nightmare. You can’t put it down. A thriller in every sense of the word. But one that goes way beyond the limitations of the genre. Shriver’s ambitions are a lot more encompassing. She discusses the nature of evil. Is it caused by nurture or nature? How is it created? Has Kevin always been the monster she feared he was or was his low self-esteem caused by his mother’s lack of love and care that turned him into a criminal? Was the mother’s resentment for having to give up all the pleasure and independence of her former life, her pre-baby life, toxic enough to corrupt and undo the little creature? The sense of guilt of a mother for not conforming to the patterns of a society that takes motherly love for granted only contributes to the character’s anguish and mental confusion. Of course, the book will show different perspectives of the scenarios we painted, but the conclusion will be up to the reader.

We need to talk about Kevin

We need to talk about Kevin

These are all great themes and I don’t need to tell you how masterfully these concepts and ideas are exploited by those wonderful writers. The angles they illuminate, the perspectives they reveal would hardly have occurred to the average reader. That’s why they are geniuses and we are blog writers. But we can always try to get closer to their art in our writing. According to Malcolm Gladwell, another writer whose books I wish I could have written (although they are nonfictional), all it takes is a dedication of 10,000 hours of work to become a world class master at your craft.

Which books would you like to have written yourself? Let us know.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon: a must-read novel


I’m planning to eat a moqueca today, a typical Brazilian dish consisting of salt water fish stew in coconut milk, onions, garlic, tomatoes, coriander and dendê oil from Bahia. This will be my way of celebrating having finished the delicious novel Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Brazilian writer Jorge Amado.

Despite the fact that our literature is not very well known outside the borders of Brazil, chances are the reader will have heard of Amado and his homeland, Bahia. He is one of our most popular writers of the XX century, and his books have been translated into more than 40 languages throughout the world.

Many of his works have been turned into famous Brazilian soap operas, miniseries and movies, but, of course, the experience of watching Amado either on the big or small screen does not compare to the much deeper pleasure of embarking on the deliciously funny, poetic and encompassing canvas of his writing.

Sônia Braga, as Gabriela

Sônia Braga, as Gabriela

Jorge Amado treats the reader with a wealth of unforgettable characters from the lowest to the highest echelons of the provincial cities of the northeast of Brazil, who intermingle in a network of politics, friendships, romance and violence.

Gabriela, the novel, is a dream of humor, poetry and cultural information. As a Brazilian, it felt great to be transported to the Ilhéus (a town on the coast of Bahia) of the first decades of last century, when the booming of the cacao exportation was making changes in the town and its customs at a pace never seen before. Progress was threatening the lifestyle and status quo of the families of the first farmers who got hold of huge expanses of land by force, with the help of their armed jagunços, never hesitating to use violence and murder in constant ambushes against their opponents. But now times were changing, with the arrival of technology and progressist businessmen, who came to those backward towns attracted  by the riches generated by the cacao.

Jorge Amado delivers his prose in a light, funny and detached tone, packed with irony, yet showing great warmth and understanding towards his characters. He depicts prostitutes, rich farmers (the so-called “colonels”), their minions (“jagunços”), churchgoing  and gossipy splinters, lonely concubines, small time businessmen and pathetic pseudo-intellectuals, against the backdrop of the geography and culture of the small provincial cities of the early decades of the 20th century. His prose will stay with you for a long time after you close the book (or switch off your Kindle), such is its power and universality.

Moreover, “Gabriela” is a very sensual text, filled with the colors, smells and tastes of Bahia. It’s a book that celebrates life and the liberation of minds, especially women’s, from the colonial chains and obsolete traditions of a male-dominated society. It’s a radical hymn against machismo, opening up doors to the possibility of freedom.

Gabriela, the protagonist, represents the essence of Brazilianness, in her beauty, simplicity, lightheartedness and pleasure for life. Of course, both the main characters of “Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon” and “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands”, another famous Amado novel, are deeply associated in our minds with the image of Brazilian actress Sônia Braga, who portrayed them both in famous movies and soap operas during the seventies. Of course, I was too young at the time to fully enjoy them – this, however, does not stop me from putting the face of Ms Braga to the wild Gabriela of the pages of the novel. After all, Sonia Braga was an icon of Brazilian sexuality and beauty in her day.

Jorge Amado is a pleasure to read. His stories will certainly make a profound mark in your life and deepen the awareness you may have of Brazilian culture. I strongly recommend you have a go at it.

Au revoir,

Jorge Sette.