“Look, everything the Communists say about capitalism is true, and everything the capitalists say about Communism is true. The difference is, our system works because it’s based on the truth about people’s selfishness, and theirs doesn’t because it’s based on a fairy tale about people’s brotherhood. It’s such a crazy fairy tale they’ve got to take people and put them in Siberia in order to get them to believe it.”
― Philip Roth, I Married a Communist
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Neurologist, researcher, clinician, but especially a great storyteller, Oliver Sacks has millions of fans around the world. His books, which are essentially collections of case studies from his experience looking after patients with brain disorders, can be said to have established a new literary genre.
To me, the appeal of reading Oliver Sacks’ autobiography, On the Move: A Life, was to catch a glimpse of the real man behind the public figure and to learn more about the amazing neurological cases and concepts I’d read about in some of his previous books.
The autobiography tells us about aspects of his private life that didn’t make their way into his clinical stories. We learn, for example, about his rebel side as a lone motorcycle rider in the 50s and 60s, and about his love of strenuous – and sometimes foolhardy – physical activities, such as extreme weightlifting, swimming in dangerous waters and hiking alone. We also find out about his Jewish family background, his evacuation to a boarding school run by a sadistic headmaster during the second world war, his homosexuality, solitude and 35-year celibacy, and his drug addiction during the 1960s (although he was considered only a weekend “tripper,” having to cope with a challenging job during the week).
What struck me particularly was Sacks’ peripatetic nature, made explicit in the title of the book. It seems he was trying to escape from something, perhaps from himself, due to the fact that he was different – like his patients – but also from his family and the burden of growing up with a schizophrenic older brother. However, being constantly on the move may have been a consequence not only of the restlessness of his soul but also of the strong mental and physical energy he exuded until very late in life.
What mainly resonated with me was his account of his obsession with writing. Sacks kept journals, taking notes of his experiences, registering his observations, thoughts and feelings. He always had a notebook on hand, even when he went swimming – which, he claimed, stimulated his mind – and he would sometimes dash out of the water to scribble his thoughts down on the pad lying nearby. He may never use those notes when he was writing his books later on, but putting his thoughts down on paper was a powerful way of clarifying his ideas and reflecting on intriguing points; it was like carrying out a conversation with himself.
Laypeople cannot judge how good a doctor Oliver Sacks was. His track record as a researcher and even as a clinician has been disputed a number of times. Also, his decision to base his stories on the cases of real patients caused controversy, as some people claimed it was unethical. His first book, Migraine, was aimed only at the medical community, but it inevitably appealed to a wider public and generated popular interest. He then gave up trying to make his accounts mere reports on medical facts and purposely imbued his stories with themes, metaphors, and humanistic and philosophical considerations, which took his writing to a whole new level.
Sacks’ case studies never give the reader the impression he’s taking advantage of his patients or exploiting them for commercial purposes. He doesn’t come across as someone who’s treating human misery as a circus show. He genuinely seems to care, and his stories, despite the unthinkable suffering of many of the people involved, are mostly uplifting. He reinforces our belief in the power of humans to come to terms with tragedy and even to overcome it.
Following the publication of Awakenings and A Leg to Stand On, Sacks gained notoriety, but it was the publication of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in 1985 that turned him into a public figure and a celebrity recognized worldwide.
One of the most interesting passages in On the Move covers the time Sacks worked as a consultant for the movie Awakenings, based on his book. Although Sacks hadn’t loved the script, which contained some fictitious subplots he wasn’t comfortable with, he decided at one point that the movie was not his, and, therefore, not his responsibility. This realization liberated him, allowing him to adopt a more relaxed attitude and to accept his role in the project.
In his autobiography, Sacks praises actor Robert De Niro’s extensive and detailed research to play the postencephalitic Leonard L., stating that De Niro would sometimes stay in character for hours or even days after filming. Sacks also comments on how weird it felt to be mirrored by Robin Williams on the many days they spent together as the actor researched the model behind the character he would portray – based on Sacks himself. I watched the movie again to write this post and found it a bit dated, lacking a drier, less sentimental approach to the subject. It could have benefited from a wittier and more creative script, since it wasn’t supposed to be a faithful replication of real life. I wonder how much better it might turn out if it was remade today, especially as an HBO production. I loved Robin William’s performance – subtle, subdued and contained. As for Robert De Niro’s, I’m afraid he didn’t convince me in the role of a postencephalitic patient.
In summary, reading On the Move: A Life was as fascinating an experience as reading Sacks’ previous books. His language and fluency are remarkable. He writes through examples; he doesn’t explain or define concepts in technical ways. That’s what makes it easy for us to appreciate his stories.
Reading Sacks’ books, I learned a lot about curious brain conditions I never suspected existed. I became familiar with a wealth of new words and concepts: aphasia, amusia, musicophilia, synesthesia, visual cortex, auditory cortex, Tourette’s syndrome and prosopagnosia, to name just a few. In his wonderful book Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, he made me understand that sign language is just another mode of language, not unlike verbal language in its sophistication and capacity to express all kinds of concepts, both abstract and concrete, through perfectly structured grammar. These kinds of enthralling revelations are the stuff his books are made of. You simply can’t put them down once you get started. On the Move: A Life is equally irresistible.
Sacks found out he had melanoma in his right eye in 2005. When it metastasized to his brain and liver in January 2015, he knew his death was imminent, but he seemed to have already come to terms with it. When he publicly announced his predicament, he added: “I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.” On the Move: A Life gave me a sense of a life well lived, packed with adventures, experiences, profound learning and fulfillment. Oliver Sacks died on August 30, 2015.
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:
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.