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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Let’s judge a book by its cover

I read somewhere that 70% of people who walk into bookshops are browsers. In other words, they simply don’t know what they want. The fact that browsers are open to anything that catches their eye, means that chances are they’ll grab those books with interesting covers. Because, tough as it is, books do get judged by their cover.

So let’s have a look at some examples. But before we go ahead, let me tell you that all of the following books made it to this blog entry, mainly, by the way they look (oh yes, let’s be vain!).

The “I’m so different” cover

These are the covers that stand out because they look different. A great deal of design it’s put into them, they make you smile and therefore have more chances of making it into your shopping basket. These covers are simply beautiful. The latest of these books that came to my attention is a novel called Freshta by Czech writer Petra Procházková.

Remove all the fonts and you’ll be left with a wonderful work of art that could easily have a place in my living room.

If curious to learn more about Freshta visit Stork Press’ website by clicking here.

The” made- into-film” book cover

This is one of the most infuriating marketing strategies ever. A book makes it into the big screen and therefore gets reprinted with a still of the film as cover! Message between the lines? Now that it’s a film, we WILL sell this book.

Marie Antoinette, the film, got released in 2006 and as a result, the cover of this award winning biography was changed to feature a still of Hollywood actress Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette. The 18th century is no where to be seen in this cover, the dominating pink colour makes it look closer to chick lit than to a serious and well researched biography. One word: rubbish.

Leaving anger aside, let’s move on.

The” less is more” cover

How about those covers where less is not necessarily more? Sometimes, simplicity is not effective. A perfect example of incredibly good novels with simple covers are those published by And Other Stories. All their books follow pretty much the same kind of design in an attempt to make a recognisable brand out of their books. I’m not convinced of how effective this could be, having in mind that browser who visits bookshops looking to be winked at.

For example, this cover do not speak to me. It simply doesn’t, and I think it’s is a missed opportunity to grab more readers.

Now, the “less is more” cover is distant cousins of the “image doesn’t match the story” cover.

And for these, I have to use the Spanish edition of  Mario Vargas Llosas’ La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat). The novel is set in the Dominican Republic and its plot revolves around the assassination of the cruel dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1961. Now a look at the cover! What is this! Well, looking at the tiny letters where all the copyright credits are, I found out that this image  is part of a fresco by Italian painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti called Allegory to Bad Government, c. 1338. As I scratch my head, I wonder if the publisher thought that Vargas Llosas’ readers are also experts in Medieval Italian art history.

The Sci- fi covers

I must confess here that I am not a science fiction reader but my home is flooded by all sorts of these novels as my husband reads nothing but sci fi. The covers are really fascinating ones, weird and complex.

For instance, check this Peter F. Hamilton cover for The Evolutionary Void. Brilliant! This is a monument to the “what you see is what you get” cover. An incredible amount of detail goes into each one of his best selling books, and I know that the plot never fails to be intriguing, ground breaking and different, just as the cover.

The “I’m a photograph” cover

Another type of covers have photographs at its core. We’ve all seen them as they are a resource that I believe is quite successful as sometimes people relate quicker to a photograph than perhaps an abstract design. A perfect example is the novel The Confidant by French author Hélène Grémillon. Look at it,  a beautiful pic. Goes without saying that the story is set in France and it involves two lovers, exactly like the ones in the photograph.

Interestingly, if you have a look at Gallic Books‘ website, you’ll see that all of Guillaume Musso’s covers are photographs? Perhaps a favourite strategy by this independent publisher?

The Retro Cover

We could spend a life time talking about retro covers. Penguin Books being the masters of it, celebrating the designs that stand the test of time and cleverly associating it to no other that their classics. Thumbs up!

But having said that and avoiding the obvious choice,  I need to celebrate the cover of Once Upon a Time in England, the second novel by Helen Walsh. A family looking into the distance surrounded by this wall paper kind of  design reminding us precisely of one of the years the novel is set in: 1975.

For any book lover, covers are a crucial aspect of our reading experience. I don’t know about you but I’ve read fantastic books with covers so hideous that I feel ashamed of; and I’ve also become a notorious contortionist just to find out what my fellow passenger is reading. The publishing industry invests hours and talent in designing book covers that will sell books but it seems like the e-readers and Kindles are decided to take that from us. For a curious commuter and book cover police like me, it frustrates me enormously not being able to find out what all of those Kindle users are reading, simply because I can’t judge that book by its cover.

Mal d’Africa

Wiki: Mal d’Africa refers to the feeling of nostalgia of those who have visited Africa and want to go back (as saudade is the nostalgia of Brazil)

How are you supposed to feel when the morning brings you this?

Very few places in the world have captured the imagination of explorers, artists, writers and travellers as Africa: the dark continent. The land of still little known creatures, plants and home incredible plains, coasts and landscapes that can only exist in this vast and immense land.

After a week in Kenya and only 3 days at the Masai Mara, I’m certain I’ve contracted Mal d’Africa. In spite of reading about the African savannah and watching those must see films like Out of Africa, my African experience was an overwhelming one. Everything they say about it is true. There is something in the air, in the light, in the colour of the ocean and in the softly spoken Kenyan people with huge smiles, that makes you leave a piece of your heart in each one of the amazing places that Africa has to offer.

I left my heart in Jomo Kenyatta beach with its impressive coral reef and in Mombasa’s incredibly crowded ferry crossing. Bits also remain at the Masai Mara by the Mara river with its out-of-this-word wildebeest migration. A place like I’ve never seen before. The Mara gave us spectacular sunrises and sunsets, as well as the joy of witnessing the power of nature at its best. You want to try a place giving you endless happiness? Try the Mara. It’s unique charm and beauty makes you leave Africa with a heavy, heavy heart. It’s hard to explain but I guess it is the unmistakable symptom of the Mal d’Africa. It happens, it’s true.

The Great Migration

I also left my heart in Shimoni and its warm turquoise waters leading to Wasini island where my heart stopped at the sight of those huge baobab trees. The ones you never think you’ll see, because at the end of the day they belonged only The Little Prince right? I will now remember those Kenyan days with huge nostalgia, but with the certainty that Kenya has planted a seed, leaving me with an incredibly soft spot for everything African that no film, short story or novel could ever match.

Two baobab trees in Wasini island

In the words of Karen Blixten: “If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me?”

Ps. While waking around the village in Wasini island, I found this sticker which caught my eye and made me smile. Hope it makes the same for those of you who can relate to this experience.

Storytelling hunger

The storytelling yurt at Nottingham’s Old Market Square

I recently had the luxury of getting funds from the European Commission to curate and deliver Sound of Stories, a 3 day storytelling programme as part of Night of Festivals 2012 in Nottingham. The project was part of the London 2012 Festival that accompanies the countdown to the Olympic Games later this month and continues until 9 September . But as great as it may sound, without the support and trust of ArtReach’s Director, David Hill, clearly my input in this event would have never happened, so thank you so much.

Thanks to the vision of ArtReach, the storytelling took place in an incredible Mongolian yurt which made the whole experience fascinating as the atmosphere was simply perfect. I couldn’t ask for a better setting to enjoy tales from all over the world, and celebrate the spoken word that makes this world such an incredible place to live in. The programme looked great on paper, but the talent of my team of storytellers completely blew me away. Mike Payton, Helen Appleton, Rachel Murray, Kasper Sorensen, Francine Vidal and Claire Harisson-Bullet from Compagnie Caracol were the key players in making this adventure such a great success.

When it comes to storytelling, technology, visual aid and any other form of external support is absolutely irrelevant. The only tool needed is people’s will to let their imagination flow and to make this happen the storyteller has in its hands a huge challenge: to keep people’s attention. What happened for three days inside that yurt was going back to the origins to enjoy the incredibly beautiful art of simply telling a story.

Here’s a sneaky look at the magic happening in the yurt:

The extraordinary Rachel Murray performing in the yurt

The experience left a very big impression in me. I curated the programme assuming that the potential audience would exposed to culture on a regular basis. I simply did. I believed that children and people in general were familiar with storytelling as a form of cultural activity because our everyday life is full of narratives! Films, TV dramas, the news or the paper, even advertising are constantly telling us stories. But I guess reality is a very different story.

Three different Nottingham Primary schools booked the morning slots to hear African, European and Asian tales. But what really struck me was to see many of those children coming back on Saturday with their families. You may think that obviously they enjoyed it very much and wanted to hear more and to be sure, I asked.  A combination of feelings came to me when a girl aged 10 told me that no one had told her stories before so there she was with her sister.  I started wondering what happens in those families at bed time and at the same time felt very stupid for not even thinking that this scenario could be possible. How could I overlook the fact that there are many children who have no bedtime stories! Children with no grandparents to tell them about the family history and those curious facts that come with our ancestors.

There, before my eyes, as I saw the queue getting longer, I realised that what I was looking at was nothing but storytelling hunger in people incredibly keen to hear more and more tales. It was not about children only, it also included those adults who quietly asked me if they could also get in, eagerly and excited as everybody else to hear a story. In a world where art and culture rely so much on technology is easy to forget that sometimes less is more. That is ok to be in your 60s and walk into a yurt to hear a Korean tale and enjoy it.

I just hope that every single person who came to the yurt at the Old Market Square in Nottingham on 21, 22 and 23 of June left with a memorable experience that will give them something to talk about. I also wish that those parents who never tell their children stories perhaps felt inspired to do so in the near future.  Sound of Stories opened my eyes that there is an alarming need to slow down, wake up and smell the coffee. It is possible… try storytelling.

Madame Mephisto: one really bad girl

Madame Mephisto is being marketed with the following phrase “What would you talk about if you were stuck in a room with a drug dealer for five days?”. Well, forget about this long sentence, I don’t think it makes any justice to the novel. So if you see it and feel like shrugging, think twice.

I read this novel on a pdf format, thinking it would prove a huge challenge to keep me interested while keeping my eyes fixed on my computer screen (yes, I don’t have a Kindle and probably never will). Hour and a half later I was still glued to my chair scrolling down Madame Mephisto’s pages with a smile on my face. Need to say more? Ok here I go.

The great triumph of  A.M Bakalar’s first novel is, in my opinion, the tone of the novel. The story is narrated by Magda, a charismatic, beautiful and successful drug dealer who is incredibly honest (and perhaps cynical) about the way she sees life.

Magda yawns at the never ending social pressure of meeting Mr Right Guy,  getting married, having children and living the so perfect family life as if happiness was all about following that recipe. Her mother is sometimes the most annoying creature on the planet, Christmas family lunch can be the year’s most boring event, the Catholic church sucks, the work environment is full of fake and stiff people. Sounds familiar?

A.M. Bakalar created a memorable anti-heroine, worth adapting to the big screen. The fact that she controls and distribute the capital’s cannabis market makes her even more attractive as a character. She is the Polish-Londoner female drug baroness, that reminded me of Teresa Mendoza, the world famous drug trafficker that inspired Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s to write The Queen of the South. See? Women can be bad, really bad girls too!

The narrative in first person gives the story a natural flow making  the events credible. And as the story develops, we are also witnessing a life confession that will end in an extraordinary and moving way. In a nutshell, thumps up to A.M Bakalar for a fantastic first novel!

Madame Mephisto is published in the UK by Stork Press.

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.