The Adventures of Pinocchio: Classics Challenge #3

This read was full of surprises, much more than the previous reads. I guess it shows how Disney embeds their versions in the collective memory and it stays there with little chance of changing. Pinocchio is perhaps one of the most famous cautionary tales but the story is much darker than I expected.

So, here are my top shockers (and plot spoilers by the way) of this absolutely wonderful story:

Geppetto is a nasty, nasty man. Yes, he is rude and violent to the point of getting involved in full blow fights. ‘…Geppetto lost his head with rage and threw himself upon the carpenter. Then and there they gave each other a sound thrashing.’ Please tell me I am not alone in remembering him as a sweet old man.

We all love the Taking Cricket didn’t we? Well, brace yourself for my jaw-dropping moment of the story. We know that Pinocchio is full of mischief, so the little Cricket decides to give him a bit of advise:

‘Woe to boys who refuse to obey their parents and run away from home! They will never be happy in this world, and when they are older they will be very sorry for it.’ (…) ‘Careful, ugly Cricket! If you make me angry you’ll be sorry!’ The Cricket tells him that he is already sorry for him because he is a marionette and that is much worse than having a wooden head. After hearing this ‘Pinocchio jumped in a fury, took a hammer from the bench, and threw it with all his strength at the Talking Cricket. (…) ‘cri-cri-cri’ the poor Cricket fell from the wall, dead! No remorse added to the scene.

Most famous fact of the story is that Pinocchio’s nose grows when he lies. I did not know this happens when the Fairy throws that spell on him: ‘…am laughing at your lies . ‘How do you know I’m lying?’ ‘Lies, my boy,
are known in a moment. There are two kinds of lies, lies with short legs and lies with long noses. Yours, just now, happen to have long noses.’
Parenting owe so much to this line!

The last revelation for me is the slightly disturbing Land of Toys. A place that promises children endless fun, no rules, no discipline and absolute freedom to do whatever they want. But this sinister place slowly transform the children into donkeys to be sold as well, slaves, really. Bit harsh.

Reading The Adventures of Pinnocchio was an unforgettable experience. I did not expect it to be so ‘grown up’ if that’s the right word. Pinnocchio has the behavior and attitude that every parent dreads: he is rude, lazy a liar, and he constantly runs away. His adventures take him to far away places and his actions have consequences for those who care for him. The marionette has to let down Geppeto, the Fairy and his friends in order to find the right path in life, and it makes a lot of sense to do it this way when thinking of a young reader.

It’s a great read and a cautionary tale that I cannot wait to read to my daughter, perhaps toning down the animal cruelty towards crickets.

To read more about the Classic’s Reading Challenge click here

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Classics Challenge #2

This is one of the perfect examples of the obvious classics that you’ve heard all about it: you recognize Alice and Cheshire Cat, you’ve seen the various films but you haven’t actually read the book. At least, I didn’t until now.

Lots have been said about Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece. It’s been the subject of endless literary studies but I will tell you one thing: it’s weird. Really, really weird.

The plot, as we know is simple. Alice and her sister are enjoying a day out when she spots white rabbit with a pocket watch. Curious, Alice follows him and falls down the rabbit hole and into a magical world where her adventures take place. She goes big, she goes small, she swims (and nearly drowns) in her tears, she finds tiny doors, she meets the craziest characters ever: the Mad Hatter, the Mock Turtle,The Queen of Hearts, the March Hare, the Cheshire Cat, The Duchess and more. For me, the Duchess is the weirdest and most fascinating of them all. And I’ll tell you why.

Children’s literature has plenty of the pretty and beautiful. But what fascinated me about The Duchess is that she’s ugly. Brutally ugly. And on top of that mean to her child and it’s the owner of the world famous Cheshire Cat!

It is unusual to deal with the lack of looks so boldly to the point that Alice feels very uneasy around her because of her appearance. “Alice did not much like keeping so close to her: first, because the Duchess was VERY ugly; and secondly, because she was exactly the right height to rest her chin upon Alice’s shoulder…” 

The iconic images accompanying Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are those illustrated by Sir John Tenniel. Digging around a little bit, I found that, according to Martin Gardner, in The Annotated Alice, Tenniel’s drawing of The Duchess was inspired in the painting The Ugly Duchess (c. 1513) by the Flemish painter Quentin Massys. The unusual and slightly disturbing artwork is part of The National Gallery’s permanent collection. Look at it, it’s brutal. And the resemblance is spot on!

Through its pages I can see why children and adults keep going back to this story. It is the madness of it all, circumstances and characters, that makes it so incredibly appealing, fun and entertaining. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an epic celebration of the human imagination and if you haven’t read it, do it now, it will feel like a dream.

To find out more about my Classic’s reading challenge click here.

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.

Confession of a “sicario”

I must start by saying I have an obsession for literature that talks about drug trafficking, drug lords and everything that has to do with this lawless but fascinating world.

In my last post, I mentioned several books on this topic, mainly fiction. But in my last trip to Mexico I was strongly suggested to read a brand new book called “Confesión de un sicario” by Juan Carlos Reyna. The title in English would be something like “Confession of a Hit Man” but not really. Throughout the years the term “sicario” has developed in Spanish as a very precise word linked only to the drug trafficking phenomenon. If we trace the roots of the word, sicario comes from the Latin that Sicarii, a contract killer. The term hit our vocabulary with great impact via Colombia during the 1980s. It is then when it became fully linked and a crucial reference to explain the new kind of “professionals” that the war on drugs created in that country which now shares such a similar history with Mexico. Allow me to insist in the importance of the term because I believe it is making its way into the English language due the precision of the kind of people it describes and will be used along this post.

Having said that Confesión de un sicario is a chilling true testimony of the horrors experienced by a man during his time of close collaboration with a Mexican drug cartel. Tijuana born journalist Juan Carlos Reyna, meets and convinced a former sicario known as “Drago” to tell the story of his life inside the narco world since the very beginning when he joined organised crime. The things he says are, in all honesty, much more violent and cruel than anything you could possibly imagine. From torture, murders, orgies and satanic rites to descriptions of mansions “for murdering use only” with sharks as pets to help disappear bodies without leaving a single trace.

In this book, Juan Carlos Reyna takes us by the hand into the everyday life of a sicario feeling like uncomfortable voyeurs of a reality we don’t want to witness or even know about. The goverment incredible levels of corruption  as well as its close relation to durg lords figure in most of the book’s pages where no one is free from the inevitable link with this massive and intelligently managed drug industry. 

Confesión de un sicario is so ruthless in its descriptions that the author had to issue a warning to the reader. Through Drago’s story there is no moral evaluation and no fingers being pointed to the narrator. The book is a very valuable tool to understand the current situation through the words of a man who had it all and lost it all. This is the story a man who describes himself by saying “the only thing I know is to kill” and who deserves to be heard.

 Confesión de un sicario was first published in February 2011 by Grijalbo .

On reading bad literature

Last Sunday 12 December, Edward Docx published an article in The Observer in which he simply categorized Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson as “mesmerizingly bad”.

I recognise that Larsson’s great contribution to contemporary literature is the creation of a splendid character such as Lisbeth Salander. Troubled, brave and incredibly intelligent. At least in The Girl With A Dragon Tatoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire. 

Then it all came crumbling down with The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest. Oh dear! WHAT happened there???  I mean, come on, Salander recovering from a shot in the head and being buried alive among other things, is able to hear, get up, lock the door as the ultra evil and heartless Zalachenko, who, by the way is also recovering from having an ax thrown into his skull, walks down the hospital corridor looking out to finish her up. Really? What is this? Nightmare on Elm Street Swedish style? Nah! I closed the book feeling laughed at and that was it for me.

While the rest of the word went crazy on Larsson’s final book of the Millenium Trilogy, I wondered what would have happened if Stieg Larsson were still alive. Was The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest the result of editors in a hurry to publish and make the most of the Larsson mania?

I do see a point in Docx’s article, having the Millenium 3 in my hands I felt I was reading bad bad literature. A book that was taking the Mickey at the detective-thriller novel, pushing the whodunnit recipe to the maximum and that at the end of the day was not worth my time. A friend of mine, well-known writer and columnist, to my surprise felt the same. She thought that Larsson’s final book went into the light without a careful editing and I wonder if that is at all fair for the author (especially for the one that can’t complain!).

I think we all should be exposed to bad literature, just a little bit. It allow us to judge, to have an opinion and helps us love our well written thrillers and novels (e.g Henning Mankell, Cormac McCarthy, etc etc etc).

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (who as Larsson, mutatis mutandi please!, never saw the huge success of his work) was an extraordinary reader who also had the great virtue of reading bad literature. “It is useful to also get bored with a book”- he said once.

I wonder if I should have kept on reading The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest….