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.

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Reading failures

The other day surfing around WordPress I came across DragonFlyy419’s blog with a post asking people to comment on books they hated. We always talk about the books we loved, changed our life, made us grow, etc. But what about those classics or “must read ones” that simply didn’t do it for you?

Surprisingly the majority of the people commented on their frustrating experience with To Kill A Mockingbird. So I could not resist and took the opportunity of a life time to tell the world how much I hated The Iliad. Yes, you read well, The Iliad. Homer’s masterpiece. Yuk! 

I was forced to read it in school when I was about 12 or 13 years and I found it completely impossible to follow, what was with that language! and overall boring, dead boring. A truly traumatic experience. Needless to say it was absolutely useless for the teacher to tell us we had to read a wonderful story in the form of an epic poem written in dactylic hexameter. Yeah thanks, now I get it!

Having said that, that blog made me think about many more books that I know are crucial in world’s literature but that went down my list of reading failures. The following may be shocker for more than one, so please feel free to comment and bring back the hope.

1. In Search of Lost Time I – The Way by Swann’s by Marcel Proust. Failure in the first of the seven volumes! I attempted it at least three times, always unable to go further than page 150. Happily for the sake of the masterpiece I did manage to go through the famous madeleines episode.

2. The Rings of Saturn. – W.G Sebald. Not for me from page 1. As much as I love Britain his journey through East Anglia sadly did not catch my attention.

3. The Light of Day. –  Graham Swift.  After truly enjoying Waterland (which reminded me of Faulkner in a way), I was dissapointed by this novel.

4. The Rebels.- Sándor Márai. I know people who are huge fans of Márai and I just did not get it. Maybe try another one?

5. My Name is Red. – Orhan Pamuk. Again, at least 3 attempts and no success after page 60. However, I see this novel as a challenge and I will come back to it as I enjoyed other Pamuk’s books such as the moving and melancholic Istanbul: Memories and a City.

I think 5 is enough, don’t want to put anyone off reading these books. But if you felt the same, I’d be delighted to hear all about it.