I’m Back or On Why I did not Blog for Over a Year

It’s been more than a year since my last blog post on Memory of Water. My excuse for this silence is well, I had a baby girl on 12 May 2014!

fine balanceOn my last day at work, my wonderful colleagues at Belgravia Books gave me a pile of books that promised to make the wait for baby more bearable and less boring. Well, baby took it’s time and in between cooking and freezing, packing and re packing, going swimming (going floating really) I started a big fat novel called A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.

At 600 plus pages and a particularly small font, the novel symbolised my resignation that baby was officially overdue. There would be long days ahead of me.

Without giving much away, the novel is set in India in the late seventies during the period known as The Emergency. As usual, I knew nothing of this chaotic episode in India’s history but the great triumph of the novel are the characters. On one hand Mistry gives a heart breaking insight to life in Bombay’s slums, and on the other depicts the never ending struggles of the middle class to remain there. The clashes between rural and urban life are also a key element on the development of the characters in the story.

Half way into the book, Paloma was born. In the few moments of peace and quiet in hospital I found myself wondering about what was in store for my characters. In particular, the tailors and aunty Dina. They felt like family and in a surreal way I was worried about them.

Back at home and in between naps, I managed to finish the novel. It took me 3 months but every page was worth it. I had the best of both worlds, a sleeping baby and a good book.

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Hate the character, love the book

commandantIs it possible to like novel featuring a protagonist that is evil and unscrupulous? Or is it that we admire the author’s ability to construct a character that will give us the creeps as the story unfolds? In order to find the answer to these questions I dare you to read Monsieur Le Commandant (Gallic Books).

In this outstanding book, Romain Slocombe gives life to Paul-Jean Husson, a character that you will find very hard to forget. This is an epistolary novel centred in one letter only addressed to a Secret Service Commandant. We are presented with one narrative voice which is that of Mr Husson. So don’t get too upset demanding ‘the other side of the story’. There will never be one.

So, who is Paul-Jean Husson? Our protagonist is a retired WWI hero, powerful, arrogant, also a novelist and on top of that a Nazi sympathiser. Needless to say, the anti-Semitic element is pretty much a key part of his personality but things get nasty when he falls desperately in love with his son’s German wife Ilse. And to make matters worse, after he investigates her background, he finds out that she’s Jewish. Well, if you think this sounds bad enough, Monsieur Le Commandant has many more surprises in store for you.

There’s no question that Mr Husson is a despicable character. The things he says in his letter to ‘Monsieur le Commandant’ are shocking and offensive but we must remember that Paul-Jean Husson is overall a man of his time.  So before you throw the book in rage remember this is 1942 and although it may be hard to believe, this novel is a reminder that there were people who thought persecuting Jewish people wasn’t such a bad idea.

‘The Jewish question has been often been misunderstood. I do not criticise the Yids for their work ethic . . . or for their notorious business acumen. As you know as well as I, the gravity of the situation is that the Jews pose a national and social threat to every country in which they are to be found. National, because the Jews are a homeless nation and assimilate only superficially into the civilization of the country that has nonetheless honoured them with its welcome.’ (p.43)

It is hard to read some of these lines in the present time and not think in horror how could someone say and do such things? But I applaud Romain Slocombe for creating such a despicable character such as Paul-Jean Husson.  Why? For the simple reason that he is a reminder that we’ve come a long way and we must work together to make the world a better place.

Bitter Almonds or The Privilege of Literacy

bitterThey say that giving a book to someone is also giving a commitment as people expect you to read it. This is how Bitter Almonds fell into my hands.

As many of you, I have a reading waiting list and I promise myself not to buy more books until I’ve read the ones I have in that never ending pile. I must confess I was reading something else when Bitter Almonds appeared. With not too much room in my bag I carried the book in my hand and while on the bus I started reading it. The rest is history. I was hooked.

This is perhaps one of the lesser known novels by the French writer Laurence Cossé. But certainly one that had a strong impact in me and that I’ll remember for a long time. The idea behind the novel is simple: literacy.

For many reading and writing is as natural as breathing. I can’t even remember that process in my childhood. I was born in a family of readers, in a house with a library that keeps on growing and where you’ll be able to find all sorts of books from classics to mountaineering and landscape gardening books. Reading has always been there, but not for Fadila, Bitter Almonds’ main character.

One day, any day, Edith, receives her new housemaid: Fadila, a 60 year old Moroccan lady. Nothing unusual there except that Fadila is illiterate. And this is when the story becomes heartbreaking and an eye opener. Edith is determined to teach Fadila to read and write, and in this process the world of Fadila opens to the reader. Just imagine not using public transport such as the underground because you’re unable to read the stations or the map.

Even more, finding your bearings in a big city rely on your memory, street names mean nothing to you. Fadila always takes the bus, the same bus and if there’s a change of route she panics and can’t get to get to work. Using a cash point is unthinkable and therefore the only way is to ask a cashier in a bank to help you fill the slips. Needless to say, Fadila can’t do numbers either. The novel is set in modern day Paris, a city where, like many others, literacy is a given. In today’s world we look around assuming the written word speaks to everyone. But very few times we sit back to think about those who did not have the opportunity or the gift of literacy.

Fadila’s journey into learning is truly a very difficult one. I’ve never tried to teach anyone to read and write and since recommending this book on Twitter I was contacted by teachers who read the book and told me that Edith’s and Fadila’s experience was beyond painful and frustrating.

I come from a country where illiteracy is not unheard of and as a book lover is easy to forget it. The great achievement of a novel such as Bitter Almonds is that takes you to the core of a life shared by many people all over the world.

In a nutshell, never take literacy for granted.

All you need is less

I wonder if you share the feeling. One day you get out of bed and suddenly realize that there are way too many books in the flat. They don’t fit in the bookshelves any more, there are so many that you can’t even see them as they are in double piles. Some have been sitting there for so long that the sun has even changed their colour, leaving the covers with weird marks. Others, are just buried under a cloud of dust capable to give you a 10 minute sneeze attack by only flicking the pages. Something has to be done.

The process goes as follows. You stand in front of the bookshelves and choose which books to donate to your local charity (I give mine to the British Heart Foundation because they look genuinely interested and grateful for my books). You fail the first attempt: all seem precious, relevant and useful.

Attempt #2  involves being very, very honest with yourself. Are you really going to re- read all these books? As the answer is no, you start moving books around and having a proper look. But what do you find?

The “denied ownership” book

80(2)

You’re horrified to find a copy of The Da Vinci Code. Can’t be. You don’t read that kind of literature. Well, it’s there to remind you of weaker times in your life. The second horror moment comes from finding foreign language dictionaries. Did I really studied German, Italian, Russian and Japanese? You won’t miss them really. Be brave, find them a better home.

The “I never really liked it” book

The exercise is now becoming more of a behavioural analysis. You then pull that book that you read ages ago and didn’t like it. In fact, you don’t even remember what is it about (that’s how big its impact was in your life). Why keep it?

Signed book = can’t let go

Books2102FranciscoGoldmanThis one is really tough. Books under this category can potentially share the dust treatment. You bought the book at an event, got it signed by the author, read it and well, it was just not your thing. You know it’s taking up space but can’t let go: it’s signed by the author. Looks like you’re doomed to keep it.

I have a book like those. For some it’s a great and necessary book but I found it just too grim and sad to carry on reading. It’s called The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman. I didn’t finish it, but it has a nice dedication after I helped in his UK visit. I didn’t get to meet him and he  still sent me the copy as a thank you. Should I? Surely not!

The “bought 6 years ago” book

Arthur and George

These are a classic! They work like those clothes you buy thinking you’ll fit in them once you lose weight. Truth is that those books sit there for ages being neglected. You pick them up every now and then, remove the layers of dust, and think “nah, not now”. And there it goes another year! The perfect example in my bookshelves of that kind of book is Arthur and George by Julian Barnes. I even tweeted asking if it was worth reading it! Answers were very positive but still ended in the charity shop. Sorry.

As hours go by you find it’s getting a little bit easier: if you let that book get so incredibly dusty it’s because you don’t really care that much about it. Come on, let’s be honest. But as I fill my bag of unwanted books I keep asking myself, why is it so hard to detach myself from books if they are just sitting there!

Perhaps the answer flows in the same direction as why we keep objects around us. Books are part of our lives, they grow with us, they accompany us in our travels, they share the coffee with us in the morning (especially when you spill it on it) and are the teddy bears of the grown ups.

Giving books away is hard. Trust me, every time I go to my local charity shop I can’t help explaining my action as if I was committing a crime.  “I love my books, they don’t fit any more, and all we need is less”. That’s what I said to the lady at the charity shop who clearly doesn’t care, gives me a big smile and says “thank you for your donation”.

Happiness, love and time

Belgravia Books has given me the joy of coming across new authors. Some of them really well known in the UK (but out of my radar) and others who have sold millions of copies (and I wasn’t one of those enthusiastic buyers). But is never late to learn new things and discover new favourite books. This is how I was introduced to François Lelord. A French author who decided to leave his successful career as a psychiatrist to write about the main three concerns of all human beings: Happiness, Love and Time. In that order.

Lelord created a fantastic character called Hector, a psychiatrist who is not entirely enjoying life and decides to to take round the world trips searching for the best ways to understand what makes us happy, why we fall in love and to learn of passage of time. Hector’s Journeys are three novels written, let say, for the ordinary reader in a very simple narrative form and in a fairy tale style. They do begin with Once upon a time!

In the trilogy, Hector writes a series of notes that guide the reader and invite us to give them a practical use. For example, in Hector and the Search of Happiness , Hector shares his lessons which are a reminder for us readers that happiness sometimes is found in simple things. ” Lesson no. 3: Many people see happiness only in the future”.  Or what about: “Lesson no. 16: Happiness is knowing how to celebrate”.  How many times we see ourselves feeling miserable for nothing? Well, I think this is the book that should be read by everybody to remind us that life is full of reasons to be happy but overall that happiness should be shared.

Hector and the Secrets of Love is a slightly more complex novel in the sense that more characters come into the picture. But again, Lelord keeps Hector writing notes on those rational elements of love and also of heartache. (If you never felt either of those please do write me a note so I can forward it to Monsieur Lelord, he’ll be fascinated).  Let me give you an example: “Seedling no. 13: Passion in love can be terribly unfair”. Sounds familiar? Here’s another: ” Seedling no. 21: Love proves itself when put to the test”. 

And finally, his latest novel Hector Finds Time, its well, about time but also about life and how we live it through the passing of the years. In this book, Hector gives us exercises to help us understand this very abstract concept that rule our lives, sometimes with no mercy at all. (hello wrinkles!) Here’s how he does it: Time exercise No. 4: Think of all the people and things you are not paying enough attention to now, because one day they will be gone and then it will be too late.  

Without giving too much away, I believe the great thing about these three little novels is that each one is a simple recipe to live a better life. It goes pretty much in the way that love and happiness are all around you and its up to us to look out for them and grab it. The passing of time is inevitable, so deal with it and use time intelligently. For me that would mean being happy and keeping love around you.

In a session early this week at Belgravia Books, François Lelord said that he found easier to tackle these topics through simple lessons than writing an academic self help book as was first expected by his publishers at the time. The truth is that it’s no surprise that Lelord has sold millions of copies and his novels put a smile on my face. The issue is to give them to one or two people I know without them feeling I think they are sad, sad creatures (I just believe there is room for improvement!)

François Lelord is published in the UK by Gallic Books.

Forget stylish Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is one of those cities that have been lucky enough to be associated with trendiness. Just close your eyes for a moment and think Buenos Aires. What comes to mind? Carlos Gardel, couples dancing tango in the picturesque barrio de la Boca , a great and juicy steak and even Jorge Luis Borges is there waving at you while walking to the National Library.

Well, if that is your idea of Buenos Aires better not read 7 Ways to Kill a Cat. That sexy and stylish city is nowhere to be seen. It’s too far away from the harsh everyday reality of the characters of this novel by Matías Néspolo.

The story takes place in a shanty town in the outskirts of Buenos Aires,  a place of extreme poverty where violence, drug trafficking and crime affects everybody. This is a place where not even childhood will spare you being dragged into gang warfare. Either you join or you die. As simple as that. But the interesting thing about the setting of the novel is that, in theory, this place could be anywhere in the world during a financial crisis. It could well be a shanty town in the outskirts of Mexico City, Chicago, Paris or Delhi. The way violence affects people and the way it’s inhabitants behave to protect their lives would be exactly the same.

7 Ways to Kill a Cat is not a bubble gum novel. The characters have no way out, no happy endings here, no opportunities for a better life, no success story, no love story that makes you smile either. But through the narration of our protagonist Gringo, we can see sparks of kindness and friendship that makes the whole thing even more tragic.

“I just don’t want any more grief. These guys are vicious bastards. You plan them on their home ground, you lose. Better to give them a wide berth.” (p.74)

For me, the element that I found incredibly clever is the presence of Moby DickGringo after brutally assaulting and stealing a large sum of money from Fat Farias, takes a trip to Buenos Aires deciding to spend as much as possible. Since the story is set in Argentina’s 2001 financial crisis, Gringo finds all the shops in sale and slashing prices. It’s hard to spend money! But surprisingly (for me, the reader) he gets hold of a copy of Henry Mellville’s Moby Dick not knowing exactly why and what to expect. From that point onwards, the “whale book” plays an important role in accompanying Gringo’s life.

“Like Ishmael, I’ve got more than enough to get to hell and back. What do I do? I open the book to look for advise, to see what the guy in the book has to say, and the loco comes out with some shit…” (p. 151)

There are certain moments in the novel, where in a brilliant way the speed of events Gringo’s life run parallel to Moby Dick’s plot, working as a mirror between fiction and reality. In many ways the pages of this classic lead him to reflect and think about the reality around him. For example, when reading about Moby Dick being white as milk, he says:

“The weird thing was the kids with the whitest smocks were usually the ones who were starving. It was like you could eliminate povery with bleach, scrub out stigma with soap.” (p. 109).

I liked the fact that it starts and ends with the same phrase. However, 7 Ways to Kill a Cat is definitely a  stronger novel in the second part. Another slightly weak point is, in my opinion, an excess of characters that distracted me. I think the story is powerful enough with memorable people like Gringo, Chueco, Mamina, Fat Farias and Quique. The presence of others such as El pampita or el negro Sosa  do not add anything crucial to the plot and could even appear as ghostly figures that Néspolo asks us to remember with no apparent reason.

Overall, 7 Ways to Kill a Cat is a pleasant and entertaining read that shares the atmosphere of Fernando Meirelles’ film City of God. I guess that gives you a clue of what to expect.

Ps. I am usually reluctant to read English translations on books written in Spanish, because I rather be exposed directly to the author’s writing. But in this case I had to read it in English. At first, I must confess I found it hard to imagine these characters speaking English and throwing words such as viejo, m’hijo, truco, compañero, mate, etc. It felt artificial and stiff but I guess avoiding that is part of the huge challenge of translating street slang. However, as the story flowed I totally forgot about this and got absolutely immersed in the narrative. I ended up being grateful that these key words were left in Spanish, because it’s the only reference that reminds you the story is taken place in Argentina. I say, if you are a Spanish speaker, give the translator a chance.

Kissing your book good night

Has a book given you so much happiness that you kiss it goodnight?  Have you ever loved a book so much you don’t want the characters to leave you? These kind of books don’t come to your hands very often, but when they do it’s impossible to forget them. That happened to me with the The Baron in the Trees (Il Barone Rampante, 1957) by the great Italo Calvino.

The book was suggested by my mum, who is a voracious reader and luckily has an excellent literary taste, so most of what she recommends it is worth reading. This little book made a huge impression on my mum, she talked and talked and talked about it but it was until the Christmas holidays that I got my brown eyes into it.

The main idea for the novel is very simple. One day, Cossimo Piovasco Di Rondó, refuses to eat a disgusting snail dish prepared by his weird and sadist sister Battista, and in an act of total rebellion leaves the table, climbs up a tree and decides never to come down. Ever.

The story is narrated by Cosimo’s brother, Biagio, who tells us the adventures lived by Cosimo during his life on the trees. Sometimes, it feels like a children’s book as we go through the stages of Cosimo’s life as a hunter when he manages to kill a wild cat and make a hat with its skin, wearing it for the rest of his life. He also becomes the guardian of the forests of Ombrosa, since he manages to move around freely through the branches of the trees able to see fires from the distance and call for help.But The Baron in the Trees is also a love story, Cosimo falls in love with Viola since he first saw her as a girl and waits all his life to see her again.  In the meantime there are encounters with Spanish exiles also living on the trees in a nearby town as well as some Russian travellers. Certain passages in the book are incredibly moving and it is so because Calvino follows simple ideas to fill of life the novel. For example, when Gian dei Brughi, the most wanted thief  loses interest in terrorising  people after discovering the pleasure of reading. Genius.

But behind the story, lies a crucial period in the history of Europe. During his life on the trees, Cosimo and Biagio experience the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon and its no coincidence that the story is set in the region of Linguria, at the time when the Italian provinces where not united. Calvino also present us with a portrait of a unique family struggling to keep their noble dreams alive at a time when monarchies and nobility are crumbling down.

For many The Baron in the Trees is about the triumph of individuality and the breaking social rules that condition our existence. It’s about celebrating the freedom to choose what we want to do with our lives leaving behind what is “expected” from us. Cosimo, the Baron, keeps his promise and never comes down. He’s present in the lives of his family, his town and history, and it seems like having Cosimo on the branches of the trees was his true mission in life.

I suffered as I see the book coming to an end, I kissed it good night, I wanted Cosimo and Biagio never to leave me. I wanted the story to go on forever and have these extraordinary characters to keep me company. I guess that’s why I read, to be able to travel in time and space and meet new friends on the way.