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

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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”.

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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.

Solitude and the City

 

For the last three years, the Association of Cultural Attaches of Latin America, Spain and Portugal (ACALASP) has presented the only literary festival dedicated to promote our literature and so kindly have let me collaborate with them as co-curator. The location is the wonderful Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross in the heart of London, the perfect place to gather Ibero American book lovers.

The festival started last Monday with a session dedicated to Colombia’s award winning author Evelio Rosero and on Tuesday it was Mexico’s turn in the spotlight with the presence of the celebrated writer Chloe Aridjis.

Chloe (apart from being the daughter of the renowned poet and writer Homero Aridjis) is the author of a fantastic novel called Book of Clouds, published in the UK by Vintage. Unlike many conferences where the author talks about the book half the audience hasn’t read, Chloe was accompanied by an extraordinary chair: Darian Leader. Without revealing much about the plot of the novel, Darian and Chloe focused on the most relevant topic in the book: solitude in the cities.

Chloe said to always been interested in the relation people have with the place they inhabit, especially now a days when people live in cities without any family roots. The main character in novel, Tatiana, experiences feeling lonely surrounded by a crowd, and in this way Chloe Aridjis makes clear that solitude is detached to the physicality of people and perhaps a key element in contemporary life. By doing this, the city in the novel (Berlin) becomes a character as well, capable to interact with its inhabitants by provoking a variety of feelings: anxiety, disorientation, happiness and, of course, loneliness. I guess she’s right to say that at the end of the day, our lives in an urban space are determined by how much the city gives and takes away from you. This is food for thought for all of us living away from our home town, and definitely a must read novel.

So thumbs up to Chloe Aridjis and Darian Leader for a fantastic event!

 

 

Keeping the faith in short stories

I used to read loads of short stories and prefered them by far over novels. Then I guess my attention went somewhere else and it was no more short stories reading for me, good few years I would say. But the other day I took a thin little yellow book (I’m into thin books at the moment) by the title “Hasta luego, Míster Salinger” by the Venezuelan author Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez. A mystery book because it’s signed by the author and dedicated to someone who, clearly, it’s not me: a guy called Juan Angel Juristo. If someone knows him, please let him know I have his copy…

There a few stories that when reading them you know, you just know, you’ll never forget them. And this book has at least 4 of those. Méndez keeps us glued to the pages with characters that are contradictory and passionate. They live normal lives, they are the next door neighbour and we, as readers, get the chance to get into their minds and live a moment in their lives.

My favourites are “La boda” (The Wedding) and “Hasta luego, míster Salinger”. Especially in these two the author introduces an incredibly well done surprise element that left me with a cheeky smile on my face. In “La boda” the bride gets paranoid about what she considers the odd behaviour of two of her work colleagues, to the point of  firing them right there in the wedding party only to find herself minutes later in a passionate encounter with both in the toilets. (Because things like that do not happen at weddings, right?)

“Hasta luego, míster Salinger” makes us feel so sorry for Edgar, a sad wanna be writer desperately looking for his wife after he was told she had been chatting with him that night. I won’t spoil the story for you but in those pages, our minds work out a story that ended up being totally different to reality. But Edgar remains being a sad, sad character, almost poetic.

I do not know if foreign publishers have come across this absolute master of the short story. I guess the non Spanish-speaking word is missing out on Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez (Barquisimeto, 1967) narrative, full of cheeky characters and those moments in life we have all been through.

With books like this  I’ll definitely keep the faith in short stories.

If you are lucky enough to read Spanish you can get these wonderful stories on http://paginasdeespuma.com/

Why you should read Down the Rabbit Hole

I’m sure you have noticed I am very keen on literature that talks about drug trafficking, that obscure genre that some call narcoliteratura and that is truly fascinating. But what is even more fascinating is to come across a novel that touches the subject in a new way: humour.

Juan Pablo Villalobos’ first novel Fiesta en la Madriguera, is available in English by And Other Stories and translated as Down the Rabbit Hole. Worth reading and I’ll give you a few reasons why.

The protagonist of the story is a boy called Tochtli and whose age is uncertain. He could be 8, 9,  or 10 years old but in a very intelligent way, Villalobos leaves that to the reader to figure out. He is the narrator of the story and through the pages of this short novel we have the opportuinity to see the world through his eyes. He is no ordinary boy. He is the son of a drug lord. But as tragic as this may sound, the truth is that Tochtli’s view of the world is rather distorted and therefore funny. Really funny. His everyday reality is surrounded by a violence and cruelty he is incredibly familiar with, but therefore he is not scared. “This is what was in the news today on the TV: the tigers in the zoo in Guadalajara ate a woman all up, apart from her left leg. Maybe her left leg wasn’t a very juicy bit. Or maybe the tigers were already full.” (p.20)

Last week, I had the privilege to chair a panel on literature with Juan Pablo Villalobos at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and obviously the topic of drug trafficking came into the  picture. It is true that the world of these drug lords give way to never ending possibilities for stories being brought to fiction. And Tochtli is the result of this. He is a little boy who can wish for anything he likes and  in this world asking of a Liberian pygmy hippo makes a lot of sense. It does!

Juan Pablo told me that while writing Down the Rabbit Hole, the only way to justify Tochtli’s whim is by placing him in the narco world. At the end of the day, this is a rite of passage novel that tells us the bitter-sweet story of this boy. This is what this novel different from any other narconovela I’ve read. Because in the words of Nick Hornby it is about a boy.

But at the end of the day, the big winner of this adventure is the reader because Tochtli brings a smile in your  face. It’s the kind of character you’d like to put in your pocket and take home with you. Things like this makes him unique and incredibly charming:

“There’s a scandal on the TV because they showed a photo of the policeman’s severed head. But it’s not because of his hairstyle.” (p.27)

A truly enjoyable read. Don’t be put off by the drug trafficking references in it. On the opposite, share the joy of being a child again, completely innocent and unaware of the harsh world outside. I think we would all like to be Totchli every now and then and I wish I could be his Facebook friend!

To get a copy of this book visit http://www.andotherstories.org