Toxic Relationships Between Parents and Kids in Fiction


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

1. The Prince and the Pauper – by Mark Twain

1749b5af55cb2c2efb751e61abce0f1d

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

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

2. American Pastoral – by Philip Roth

71--XcbyBEL

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

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

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

10176

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

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

4. My Sister’s Keeper – by Jodi Picoult

400-keeper-9780743454537

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

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

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

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

Advertisements

5 Books Kids Used to Love Reading


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.

The Bookworm by Spitzweg, Carl 1850

The Bookworm by Spitzweg, Carl 1850

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.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

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.

The Old Man and the Sea


What’s all the fuss about this little tale of on old Cuban fisherman on the hunt for a huge marlin in the blue seas of the Gulf Stream, and his fight against the sharks that try to steal his spoils of war on the way back home? I needed to find out.

In his deceptively simple writing, Ernest Hemingway expresses all his concepts about life, old age, the meaning of victory, friendship, cooperation and masculinity in the fewer than 130 pages of this unforgettable story.

It’s a book with layers of meanings, and the right one for you will emerge and resonate deeply and fast – depending on your age and the point of life you’re at.

The Old Man and the Sea. Illustration by C.F. Tunnicliffe and Raymond Shepard.

The Old Man and the Sea. Illustration by C.F. Tunnicliffe and Raymond Shepard.

 

The powerful narrative of Hemingway will make you put yourself in this old man’ shoes (or lack thereof). You will feel the fishing line cutting through your hands and your back while you try to keep the marlin hooked, as the huge fish swims forward fighting for freedom, pulling your skiff along for endless hours out to the deep sea. The old man’s thoughts will be your thoughts – although I suspect his love for baseball will surely be replaced by your passion for soccer if you don’t live in the USA; his endurance and respect for life will sink profoundly into your heart. His recurring dreams of lions walking on a distant African beach will duplicate all your yearning for naturalness, beauty, purity and strength.

The Old Man and the Sea made me realize three great movies I’ve watched recently have strong references to it, without my noticing them at the time: Life of Pi, Captain Phillips and All is Lost, the latter featuring Robert Redford from the height of the dignity of his 77 years of age. The same themes of endurance, self-reliance and the power of dreaming reverberate through all of them, resolved in different and exciting original artistic forms. And, of course, they all go back to Melville’s Moby Dick.

I don’t expect anything else from a work of art: give me something beautiful and simple – throw some ocean into it, if possible – test my hero to the limits of his physical and mental strength, put me in his head as he struggles, and the artist will have managed to take me to places I have never been before, and, as a consequence, made my life richer and a lot more meaningful.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

Jorge Sette Interviews Philip Roth


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:

philip-roth-3

Philip Roth: author of NEMESIS, AMERICAN PASTORAL, THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, THE HUMAN STAIN…

(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.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.