“Everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt and control them. The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise.” Philip Roth
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?
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).
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?
The Booker Prize or The Man Booker Prize for Fiction – initially called the Booker-McConnell Prize, due to the company which sponsored it – is an English literary prize created in 1968. It is awarded to the best novel of the year. At first, only Commonwealth, Irish, and Zimbabwean writers were eligible, but as of 2013, the eligibility was extended to any novel written in English and published in the UK. Being awarded, or even shortlisted for it, is a great honor, as the prize warrants success and fame for every writer who’s associated with it.
As a voracious reader, I can assure you that, whenever you finish a novel and are left with that familiar void, yearning for another great book to come your way, taking a look at the Booker Prize list of winners or shortlisted books is a great way to begin your search. You will hardly be disappointed.
The list below is my personal choice of great Booker Prize Winners. I’m sure they will stay with you long after you finished reading them, as the language is stunning and the plots are both original and gripping. The books below are listed according to the year they received the prize:
- Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle (winner of the 1993 Booker Prize)
Funny, moving and poignant, this novel is told from the perspective of a 10-year-old Irish boy growing up in the 1960s. As he narrates his experiences – using the logic and language of childhood – we get to know his discoveries, games and adventures with his little brother, the relationship between his parents and the daily routine of his family. Despite the cheerful tone of the book, at some point, readers begin to suspect they are being misled by the unreliable narrative of a child: not everything is going well at home, the truth is his parents are drifting apart and about to break up.
- Amsterdam by Ian McEwan (winner of the 1998 Booker Prize)
Three former lovers cross paths at the cremation of their common mistress, Molly Lane, without realizing that the meeting will be a turning point in their lives. Their careers and personal lives will be cleverly manipulated by the woman’s jealous and resentful widower, George, who will set them on a collision course with one another, crafting a spiderweb of blackmails, mutual blames and lies, tabloid stories, debauched cross-dressing photographs, sinister euthanasia doctors and, ultimately, violence and tragedy. Clive Linley, one of the lovers, is a musician who, after attending the cremation, embarks on a depressive behavior, worried that he may get sick and die as young and unexpectedly as Molly. As a consequence, he is having a mental block, which prevents him from finishing up the Millennium symphony he was assigned to compose. Fame and recognition are at stake here and he is frantic (the language used by the author to describe the composer’s creative process and its drawbacks is already a good reason to make you love the book); Molly’s second lover, Vernon Halliday, is a mediocre editor of a serious and conventional newspaper whose circulation and readership are going seriously down. He is suddenly given the chance to resort to dirty and cheap tabloid tactics to try to reverse the process, publishing intimate photographs which are likely to destroy the family life and career plans of the third lover, Julian Garmony, a foreign secretary with aspirations of becoming prime minister.
- Life of Pi by Yann Martel (winner of the 2002 Booker Prize)
A hymn to religious tolerance, a celebration of life in all its forms, and the recognition of the power of storytelling make Life of Pi an unforgettable novel. The story contrasts myth and reason, religion and science, asking the reader to compare the effectiveness of simply narrating the factual sequence of events of a journey with the alternative of fictionalizing it through the use of allegories. Which version would you choose as the more insightful and helpful way to understand the world? A Canadian writer in search of ideas for his new book is promised the opportunity to hear a story that will make him believe in God. With this aim, he agrees to meet and listen to the life story of an Indian man who spent 227 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean, sharing a lifeboat with none other than a Bengal tiger, after the shipwreck of the Japanese cargo ship which would take his family to Canada. Brutal, scatological, philosophic, funny and poetic, Life of Pi saddens, cheers and inspires the reader, who will certainly come out of the experience loving tales and metaphors even more than when he started the book.
- Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (winner of the 2009 Booker Prize)
The first part of this trilogy tells the known story of the marriage of Henry Tudor and Anne Boleyn and all the political, religious and social upheavals involved in making it happen. The novelty is the choice of perspective chosen by the author, who decides to focus the novel on a lesser historical character, whose life details are not very well-known: Thomas Cromwell. Choosing Cromwell – who rises from being the son of a Putney blacksmith to Master Secretary of the kingdom, due to his intelligence and cunning – as the protagonist of the story allows the author to fill in the blanks of history books with her fertile imagination, transporting and placing the reader smack in the middle the exciting events that happened more than 500 years ago.
- Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (winner of the 2012 Booker Prize)
This is the second volume of the Cromwell trilogy, and, in my opinion, better written and even more exciting than the first – to me, it sounds like the author finally found the best way to tell the story. Despite all the efforts and machinations of the court to bring Anne Boleyn and Henry Tudor together, causing England to sever links with the Catholic Church, and antagonizing its powerful neighbors in Europe by appointing Henry VIII the head of the Church of England, the queen fails to deliver a male heir and will have to be ousted. Craftily paving the way to Henry’s new marriage to Jane Seymore, Cromwell will become Anne’s main nemesis, ruthlessly plotting the annulment of her marriage and driving her to a thunderous fall, which will bring many others down with her. Terrific reading.
Have you read any of these books? Share your comments with us. Also, watch this space for further suggestions on the wonderful books out there you may not have heard about.
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).
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wuthering 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.
The 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.
The 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.
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.
It may seem surprising that I chose to review a movie from 2007 in this post. Arent’t there any new movies good enough to deserve more updated commentaries? Well, the advent of NETFLIX blurred time lines, and today, at the tip of your fingers, you can access and pick either the latest episode of House of Cards, or immerse yourself as easily in a classic movie bringing your laptop or any other device to bed, and then not being able to sleep. Going to bed with your e-devices is, after all, considered one of the main causes of the prevalent insomnia and sleep deprivation most of us suffer these days. The flickering light will stay on in your brain for hours even after you switch the machine off and try to invite Morpheus in. I believe the god gets jealous of being relegated to a second post in your bed priorities, or third, if you take sex into consideration, and, as a consequence, will resist your call as long as possible – despite all the Ambien you might use to entice him.
Speaking of Morpheus, the movie we are discussing today has mythology and classic literature at its center (Cassandra and Dostoyevsky) and also dreams in its title and themes. Cassandra is a mythologycal figure who, in the best known version of her story, rejects the advances of Apollo and is cursed with the power of prophecy which will not be believed by anyone. Tragic: you try to warn people against their foolish ways, foretelling their fateful outcomes, yet no one takes your predictions seriously.
Well, Woody Allen’s movie is a cautionary tale about ambition and the use of short cuts and quick fixes to get what you want. It’s a warning for those who cross forbidden and dangerous lines to achieve their dreams and aspirations. At the same time, we know humans will never change no matter what Cassandra says. Excessive ambition will always contaminate countless souls and the lure of short cuts is too strong to resist, despite its consequences.
In this respect the story is not new, it has been told innumerable times, we read about it in the papers every single day. Nevertheless they do not usually rely on charismatic actors such as Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell embodying the fateful ambitious brothers on their tragic path to destruction, stopping at nothing to get what they dream about, nor with the help of a great supporting cast to help tell the story, which is not uncommon in any Allen movie. Cassandra’s Dream would never be this strong movie if we could not count on the superb performances of this team.
The movie starts with the brothers, who have a very close bond, excited at the prospect of purchasing a small boat and trying to negotiate the price down with its owner. From the very first dialogue we realize they are not guys who play straight and are always trying to take advantage. Terry (Colin Farrell), a pill-popping, compulsive gambler with a drinking problem, works as a mechanic in a garage and is always lending expensive cars to his bother Ian (Ewan McGregor), who works in the family restaurant while trying to save money to start a hotel business in California. The story takes place in modern-day London, which, together with another Woody Allen movie set there, Match Point, makes the most of the amazing sights of the city in the beautifully photographed scenes.
The whole family – the two brothers, father and mother – is always shamelessly sucking up to a rich uncle – with shady deals all over the world – who visits them a couple of times a year, and lavishes the relatives with presents and, sometimes, cash. Well, now, however, the stakes are higher: Terry owes a lot of money to hard-core gamblers and might have his legs broken if he fails to pay them back. Ian, on the other hand, can’t wait to get away from the greasy restaurant business and break free from his suffocating family to move to America with a newly-acquired theater actress girlfriend, who dreams of becoming a successful Hollywood star.
The uncle has the means, the power and the connections to make all this come true. All they need is to ask him. After all, they are family. Blood is more important than anything else, isn’t it? But blood costs blood: the rich uncle will lend both brothers the money and work his powerful connections to turn Ian’s girl friend into a star in exchange for a huge favor: he claims he can only count on Terry and Ian to get rid of a business contact who knows too much about his shady deals and may send him to jail for the next 10 years. They must kill him.
Crime and punishment
In this Crime and Punishment kind of plot, the brothers decide to cross the line – there is no return – and do the deed. They kill the man. Before long, however, the Raskolnikov’s syndrome of not being able to live with the burden of the guilt overcomes Terry, who threatens to go to the police and surrender. Uncle Rich and Ian will not let that happen. Terry has to be stopped. Another line to be crossed.
The face-off between the two brothers takes place against the backdrop of the Thames – the water playing the eternal metaphor of hidden and dark subconscious compulsions – inside Cassandra’s Dream, the fateful boat they acquired at the beginning of the story, in a breathtaking sequence, where the bond and love felt by the two brothers get mixed up and destroyed by the ambition of cold-blooded Ian and the weakness of unstable Terry. The already stunning actors’ performances rise a couple of notches for the grand finale – which, as a plot point, is even a bit anticlimactic. Maybe this is on purpose, as we are mainly left with the facial expressions of Colin and Ewan forever engraved in out minds and wishing for more as the final credits roll on.
Human beings will never change, but Netflix viewers of Cassandra’s Dream will never be the same after watching acting of this caliber.
I was lucky to grow up in a house packed with books. Both my mother and father loved reading. However, a dear aunt who lived with us for the most part of our lives was the real family bookworm. She wouldn’t stop buying books. This is the kind of environment that fosters the taste for reading in a kid. We wanted to know what the fuss was all about. Why do these grown-ups keep their eyes glued to those pages when the rest of us are having such a great time in front of the television watching Lost in Space? I had to find out.
My Mom decided to buy a collection of juvenile books which had just come out. Each volume came out quarterly and was sold from newsstands. It was basically through this collection that I made the acquaintance of some of the great storytellers of all time: Dickens, R. L. Stevenson, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Victor Hugo and Jack London to name just a few. J. K Rowling was not among them, but I must confess I find Harry Potter’s The Prisoner of Azkaban a very sophisticated and clever book. The dementors, strange creatures that look after the magic prison featured in the story, are prone to inspire all kinds of psychological metaphors which can be disturbing even to adult readers.
In this post I’m going to list some of the books I loved when I read them as a child or a teenager and try to explain the power they exerted on my imagination, making me become an avid reader for life.
1. Treasure Island by R. L. Stevenson: this was probably the first “real” book I’ve ever read (as opposed to the toy-books and comics I read before). It had a hard cover and it was thick by a 11-year-old’s standards. My brother and I read it around the same time and we couldn’t stop talking about Jim, the kid hero, who finds a map to a hidden treasure, after a mysterious captain dies at his parents’ inn by the sea. This is basically a coming-of-age tale, as Jim embarks on a perilous journey to find the treasure. Of course it has all the clichés we associate with pirate tales today. But I believe it must have been among the very first books to create and develop those same clichés in the first place. Whenever my brother and I would go to desert beaches for a day or the weekend – they’re a lot more common on the northeastern coast of Brazil, where we lived, than in the rest of the country – we relived in our imagination, as we ran up and down dunes and rocks, Jim’s adventures and challenges. We were Jim ourselves.
2. The Adventures of Tom Swayer by Mark Twain: who can forget Tom and Huck, best buddies, having fun, playing games and pranks in a small town by the Mississipi river in the early 1840s? Tom lived with a little bother, Sid, and a cousin, Mary, under the strict surveillance of Aunt Polly, who was always harassing the poor boy on matters of religion, cleanliness and good manners. Huck, on the other hand, was a boy of the streets, son of a drunk hobo, free to do whatever he pleased. Tom was the leader of the gang of the boys in the area, playing pirates and robbers, traveling to islands and exploring caves. The book is also about a boy’s first love and, although for most of us this was not so interesting, Twain made us care a lot about Becky, Tom’s sweetheart, by having them get lost in a maze-like cave, persecuted by a wanted criminal in the thrilling climax of the book. Unforgettable. This book is continued on a much more sophisticated work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, considered Twain’s masterpiece. But I only got to read that a lot later in life.
3. The Call of the Wild by Jack London: the progressive inner journey of Buck – a domesticated dog kidnapped by an unscrupulous farmer employee, and sold to work as a sled dog in Alaska- into his wild self is beautiful and liberating. The story is boldly told from the point of view of the animal itself, so we get a whole new perspective. The story is so powerful that makes one wonder whether we ourselves should not follow a similar path in the search of our truest soul, shedding all the masks and disguises imposed by a false concept of civilization.
4. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens: of course the possibility of losing my mother was the worst nightmare I had growing up. My father died in an accident when I was very young, so I grew up in constant fear that my Mom might leave me too. Reading Oliver Twist was a great cathartic way to put myself in the character’s shoes and deal with the horrible situations I feared the most, with the relief that, whenever I put the book down, all the horrors I had been through remained pure fantasy and my Mom would still be safely living with me. It was reassuring to realize I’d never had to beg for food as the poor hero after being served a meager meal in one of the most heart-wrenching passages of the book: “Please, sir, I want some more.”
5. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne: if you read it today, it will feel a bit dated and definitely unbelievable. But at the time I first read it, I was fascinated by the trip to Iceland to reach the right volcano crater which would lead the characters down to the center of the planet. Some of the images branded forever in my brain by the powerful storytelling are, for example, the huge lake in the depths of the earth where we watch a fascinating fight between aquatic Cambrian monsters; the enormous caves jammed with stalagmites and stalactites (I bet you don’t know the difference between them!) the characters had to walk across on their way down, or the narrow halls and passageways along which they crawled down on their mission to get to the center of our planet. However, it was hard to keep the suspence of disbelief during the passage at the end of the book, when the characters are implausibly ejected to the surface of the planet by riding a flimsy raft on rising boiling magma, traveling up a volcano channel. No way!
The books mentioned above are commonly associated with boys’ taste for challenge, danger, violence and adventure. I suspect, however, that girls might derive the same pleasure from them. What do you think? Please leave your comment and rate this post as you leave the page. Don’t forget to tell us about your favorite books too.
Philip Roth died last night at 85. This article was written a couple of years ago.
For the usual readers of this blog, it’s no surprise that I consider Philip Roth the best living North American writer. This opinion is shared by many other people, so I’m not alone in this assumption. I was lucky to have read my first Roth – although in Portuguese – when I was still in college: Portnoy’s Complaint. Of course, I was duly scandalized by the account of the life and troubles of a young Jewish American man who does not refrain from telling the explicit details of his sexual activities to a silent therapist. Maybe I was not as shocked as the readers who first came across the book when it came out in the 1960s, but the late 1980s in Recife, Brazil, were still pretty conservative for the likes of Roth. As a matter of fact, I would say the whole world still is.
Roth does not mince words. He is brutal and unsentimental in the depiction of his characters, despite the love and care you sense he feels for most of them deep down, if you read his novels attentively. He tends to strip men and women of their social disguises, digs deep, and exposes them almost cruelly to our judgment. Some say he is a misogynist in his portrayal of women. Well, if you read Sabath’s Teather, in which he creates one of the most disgusting and at the same time fascinating male characters in Western literature, you may change your mind. He can be as harsh towards men, after all. The world is in general tougher on women and, therefore, misogynistic itself. Roth’s novels are a mere reflection of life as it is. More precisely: his novels illuminate angles and dark corners of life we try to hide from our eyes and thoughts.
This blog post has the simple objective of listing 4 of my favorite Roth novels and what I personally took away from them. Please don’t take my word for it. Immerse yourselves in the original sources and feel free to interpret them as you feel you should. The comments below may be entertaining, though. However, I’ll never presume they reveal the essence of each of the discussed works.
1, Nemesis: New Jersey in the mid 1940s. A horrible outbreak of polio causes mayhem in a peaceful community. Children are badly affected, especially the ones who live in the Jewish and Italian quarters of the city. Few families are not hit by tragedy. It’s practically impossible to run away from it. Are the gods against them or are they on their own in a world ruled by the random manifestations of an indifferent nature. Does it matter? The only option left for humans struck by horror and tragedy is to accept it and find a mental way of coping with the debris. Nothing else makes sense or will help our species. Stand up for yourself and fight on your terms. Throw your javelin with all the beauty and strength of a God (an image you will find in the book) and defy your peers in Mount Olympus.
2. American Pastoral: Winner of the Pulitzer prize for best work of fiction in 1998. This novel tells the story of the idyllic life of a perfect upper-middle class American family, eventually shattered to pieces when the sweet and amorous daughter grows up to become a rebel teenager and join militants in a protest against the Vietnam war, allegedly planting a bomb in the local post office and killing a bystander. She then runs away, disappearing forever from home. I guess the takeaway from this book is given in the first chapters, in a different context, when we are still in the story outside the story, which makes the complex framing structure of the novel. Do we really know what people are like? Nathan Zuckerman, one of Roth’s recurrent characters, who may function as his alter ego, shares this painful truism with us: “You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. … 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. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.”
3. Sabbath’s Theater: Not for the faint of heart, this book depicts the progressive moral and physical deterioration of a man who has never had any other ambition rather than entertain people through running a marionette show in the streets of New York. It’s when this puppeteer blurs the limits between what you can do to your dolls as opposed to other real human beings that the problems start. You cannot manipulate people without suffering serious consequences. The dolls will turn on you eventually and your life will become a nightmare. The most amazing thing about the book is the ability of the writer to turn one of the most repellent characters ever created in Western literature, Mickey Sabbath, into a sympathetic and even lovable person for a legion of fans, who can sense all the humanity that oozes out of him.
4. The Human Stain (spoiler alert: you can’t discuss this book without giving some essential info away – in my defense, all I can say is the info I’m about to share will be revealed in the first chapters of the novel anyway.) This novel is not a whodunit kind of work, rest assured. A Jewish former professor and dean of the fictitious Athenas College in Massachusetts is forced to resign after, going through the roll call, asks the class if a couple of listed students who never show up and whom he never met personally “are real or spooks”. It so happens that in those days of the end of the 1990s spook was a loaded word, a derogatory epithet for African Americans. In the intolerant and hypocritical climate of the reign of the politically correct, the professor is the perfect scape goat, and everyone who’s ever held any grudge against him jumps at the opportunity to tap into the incident to profit from it, by destroying his reputation. Unjust, unfair, stupid. Worse: Professor Coleman Silk is in truth an African American himself, who, for excelling in boxing when he was young and having light skin, passed for white in the eyes of a number of influencial people on his way up the sport’s ladder, and decided to assume this fake persona. He had been a youth in the 1950s and realized he would never have the same opportunities of a white person to fulfill his potential no matter how hard he tried. He is offered a way out and takes it, abandoning his family and his previous life, and recreating himself as a completely new person, whose potential could now be tapped to the full. He becomes the Jewish professor Silk. But he will pay dearly for it and for breaking other conventions of the times. He is a born transgressor. A fighter. The reader is therefore left with the painful and disturbing question of whether he/she would have done the same thing. Haven’t we all done something similar to some extent in our lives: compromising, betraying, discarding deeply ingrained beliefs and principles to succeed and get ahead? Or at least to be given a shot at the possibility of winning, when all the odds are against us? A powerful and uncomfortable novel, I can’t stop returning to it. I’m always going back to Silk’s saga to reflect on my own values and how truthful I still remain to them.
If you have the chance, get one of those books and read them. I can guarantee they will change you somehow.
Based on some of my previous posts on Facebook, Twitter and this blog, many of you will already know that Philip Roth is one of my favorite writers. At 81, he is considered by many the greatest living American writer. I can’t get enough of his books. They usually investigate the depths of the human soul, are packed with painful truths, but also convey a dark sense of humor, which makes them irresistible.
Although I have already reread many of his novels, the good news is he’s so prolific that I haven’t been able to cover his complete works yet. So there is a lot to look forward to. I don’t think I will ever have an opportunity to talk to him in person, as he is very reclusive and private. And, to be quite honest, I would not like that to happen, as I want to preserve the idealized image I have of him.
So I decided to imagine and share with you, dear reader, an interview I could have had with Mr. Roth. Of course all the answers are true, since they are quotes of his or his characters. Let’s find out more about Philip Roth then:
(J stands for Jorge, and R stands for Roth)
J: Mr Roth, most of your books feel very autobiographical although they are supposed to be fictional. Do you plan to write more non-fiction in the future? Don’t you think you should have a blog or even a Twitter account like everyone else nowadays so people could get to know you better?
R: “Everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt and control them. The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise.”
J: I understand you live alone now. Any romantic interest in your life at this moment?
R: “The only obsession everyone wants: ‘love.’ People think that in falling in love they make themselves whole? The Platonic union of souls? I think otherwise. I think you’re whole before you begin. And the love fractures you. You’re whole, and then you’re cracked open. ”
J: You are not young anymore, don’t you ever feel lonely and wish there was someone sharing your life? I think I would.
R: “Stop worrying about growing old. And think about growing up.”
J: Sure. Can you tell us a little about your creative process? What’s your writing routine?
R: “I don’t ask writers about their work habits. I really don’t care. Joyce Carol Oates says somewhere that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they’re actually trying to find out, “Is he as crazy as I am?” I don’t need that question answered.”
J: Well, let’s turn to current events then. What do you think of the present situation in Syria and Ukraine? Don’t you think diplomacy should have worked more effectively by now?
R: “You put too much stock in human intelligence, it doesn’t annihilate human nature.”
J: I see. New Jersey and New York always remind me of you and your books.
R: “I came to New York and in only hours, New York did what it does to people: awakened the possibilities. Hope breaks out.”
J: Mr Roth, thanks for agreeing to meet with me, but I must make a confession. I feel it’s easier to know writers by reading their books rather than interviewing them. What do you think is the best way to get to know someone and understand their motives?
R: You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. … 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. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.”
J: Thanks, Mr Roth, that’s very reassuring. Can I ask you a final question? I’ve started this little blog and I’m very proud of it. I love writing, although I’m just starting. Would you give me some advice as an experienced and famous writer?
R: “Yeah, this is great. But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”
J: Hmmmm. Well, thank you, I guess. This will be posted online. I will let you know when. Take care.
I got a funny reaction to my blog post on Wuthering Heights (http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-j0) from an anonymous reader. He or she wrote to me saying: “You are so vain, you probably think Wuthering Heights is about you”. I suspect this is an adaptation of a line of an old Carly Simon song, who allegedly was referring to Mick Jagger. In a way, I found the comment rather amusing, and, to be quite honest, remarkably true. Even more worrying: I tend to think that every single book I love is about me! As a matter of fact, it only interests me if I can somehow relate to it. And I guess this is what happens to every reader, at least the more romantic ones, like me. So, yes, you got it right, dear anonymous e-mail writer.
Take for example some of the best books I have read (and often reread) : Dom Casmurro (by Machado de Assis), Nemesis (by Philip Roth) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (by Tom Wolfe). They are really all about me.
The first time I read Dom Casmurro I was still in high school, and totally fell in love with Capitu. The kiss she and Bentinho exchange while he is combing her hair and she drops her head back, making their faces align in opposite directions, is one of the most romantic scenes I remember as a teenager. Imagine my surprise when I saw a repeat of that scene decades later in the movie SPIDER MAN! This time he was hanging upside down from a wire fence while Mary Jane was looking up. The same kind of kiss. Also, like Bentinho, the main character in Dom Casmurro, I can be quite jealous in a relationship and totally understand how paranoid it must feel to have your kid grow up to look like your best male friend. And the best thing is, every time I read the book again, I find new clues that indicate that Capitu must have been unfaithful, although we can never be one hundred per cent sure, as the story is very cleverly told from the point of view of the narrator only, who happens to be Bentinho, the husband.
Nemesis by Philip Roth is a very universal story, and if you can’t identify with it, I’m afraid you have a problem. Although I’m not Jewish and am fortunate enough not to be physically disabled (the story is about the terrible consequences of the outbreak of a polio epidemic in the mid-1940s New Jersey), I fully identify with the book’s themes. The main message, as I see it, is, if you are struck by tragedy, if you have a disability of any kind, or anything else people may look down upon or reject you for (and that probably applies to all of us), there is no point in blaming God or the Universe for it. Get on with your life, it’s your responsibility to make the most of it and restore or construe your own meaning for happiness. Or fight back. This is something everyone needs to hear: take full ownership of your failures and problems, and deal with them. No one else will care as much. Tough, but real.
The Bonfire of the Vanities: the main character finds himself in a kafkaesque situation: he gets lost in a dangerous part of the city while driving back from the airport with his mistress, and accidently seems to strike a young black man he was sure was trying to mug them. What a nightmare! Was it a hit-and-run accident? Should they tell the police straightaway? But the wife will find out about the mistress then. Was the kid really hit, all they heard was a little noise (“thok”) after all. Surely the boy was OK. What decisions do they need to make? Mistakes are inevitably made along the way and there are terrible consequences. Moreover, there are many third parties (journalists, community leaders, attorneys, politicians, etc) trying to profit politically from the situation. Nothing is as morally simple as it first looks. Interesting questions. The reader gets deeply involved in the plot and its turns. “Unputdownable”. Besides, it’s very tempting to picture myself living the good life of a succesful Wall Street yuppie in a huge two-story apartment off Park Avenue in Manhattan…without the tragedy! Another book that COULD be about me.
So I’m really sorry if the anonymous e-mail writer intended to hurt my feelings accusing me of believing that Wuthering Heights is about me. Catherine, one of the book’s main characters, says at one of the most important plot points in the story: “I am Heathcliff!” Well, so am I!