Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Back on Sunday!

I've been away (again) for almost two weeks - there was an issue with my laptop so the computer place has had it for ages, but I can pick it up on Friday! It isn't mortally injured or anything - the dog leapt on it and ripped off a load of keys with her claws, leaving several gaping holes in the keyboard. I knew there was a reason I never usually let her into my room...

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Moral Superiority of the Novel by Susan Sontag

The Guardian (my favourite!) has just published an essay by Susan Sontag entitled Pay Attention to the World. It compares the novelist's traditional task to the new task they face in modern culture (and the predicted 'hypernovel'), and contains some wonderful observations.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Lady, The Chef and The Courtesan

The Lady, The Chef and The Courtesan, by Marisol
Country: Venezuela

"According to a Latin American proverb, a complete woman must be a lady in the living room, a chef in the kitchen and a courtesan in the bedroom."

Ironically, a couple of days after writing a post ranting about the difficulties of finding anything to read from Venezuela, I came across a review of this book online. I read the blurb on Amazon, and since I have a weakness for certain types of book - in this instance, a feminist novel of newly discovered inner power enabling the central character to go against her mother and cultural traditions to follow her heart and step into a new life in Chicago - I snapped up a copy and dived in.

As it turns out, the original reviewer was right on the money - I can't find her review, but she wrote something along the lines of 'not great, but interesting for the cultural knowledge it contains'. My initial impressions of the novel were not favourable. I thought the language was stiff and cliched, nothing piqued my interest and I decided that life is to short to carry on reading if it didn't pick up by the end of the first chapter. As it turned out, the book did pick up - without wishing to give too much away, much of the main body of the novel is Pilar's grandmother diaries, containing stories from her life, lessons she learned on love, cooking and living in Venezuelan society and a secret she carried with her to her grave. Slightly weirdly, once the author got into the diary excerpts, her prose changed and became beautifully composed and flowing. The contents of the text also changed, revealing aspects of traditional Venezuelan customs and culture within the main storyframe. Unfortunately, the end was a little predictable and unsatisfying, but I do now posess a killer paella recipe, which I will be trying out as soon as I buy some oregano!

Here's three facts about Venezuelan culture you probably didn't know:

1. Women are expected to remain virgins until they marry, but men undergo a rite of entry into manhood by visiting prostitutes in brothels.

2. When a marriage proposal is put forward between two families, the bride's propective mother-in-law must prepare the most delectable meal she can for the bride's family to prove that her son is worthy of his future wife (who will already have undergone extensive training for housewifery).

3. Traditionally, Venezuelan women make a lot of their own beauty products - tooth whitener made with lime juice and baking soda, lip plumper made with honey and chillis and each woman will also blend her own unique individual scent.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Once I put it down, I just couldn't pick it up...

I was planning to post on something entirely different today, but an article in The Times with the same title as this post caught my eye today (you can find it online here). The piece amused me after my observation yesterday that I've spent the last two weeks starting several books without finishing many of them. According to a recent survey, "the average Briton spends more than £4,000 on books over a lifetime, but leaves nearly half unfinished". I'm fairly sure I'll spend a good deal more than that, but I don't plan on leaving such a large proportion unfinished. A high percentage of people surveyed confessed to buying titles that would look good in front of others, which is something I don't think I do. I will admit to making careful selections from my shelves at times, but generally that just means leaving Harry Potter and Jilly Cooper at home! Here's the list of the top ten unfinished fiction books:

1 Vernon God Little, D.B.C. Pierre
2 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J K Rowling
3 Ulysses, James Joyce
4 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis De Bernieres
5 Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
6 The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie
7 The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
8 War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
9 The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
10 Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky

I've started (and completed, before you ask) four of these - Harry Potter (loved it), The Satanic Verses (disappointing, wanted to give up but didn't), The Alchemist (overrated) and The God of Small Things (compelling but disturbing in places). Of the others, I know Captain Corelli's Mandolin is in the house somewhere, and Ulysses has been languishing on my shelves for ages, as has Crime and Punishment. I haven't even heard of Cloud Atlas, I don't think - and I'm unlikely to look it out now! How many on the list have you completed or abandoned?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Carlos Fuentes on Reading

During my (slightly extended) break from blogging I’ve been delving into books left, right and centre. I’ve started several, including Memoirs by Pablo Neruda, One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School by Scott Turow and The Sin of Father Amaro by Portuguese writer Eça de Queiroz.. I’ve also been dipping into Neruda’s poetry as I go. On top of these, I started (some time ago now) Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands as well as The Obscene Bird of Night, both of which are staring accusingly from my shelves. Abandoning books before completion is not usually a problem I encounter and it is definitely not a habit I want to get into – apart from anything else it is very frustrating to have half-finished books lying around. I feel like a sloppy reader!

Another book I’ve been dipping into when the urge takes me is a book of essays by Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, called This I Believe: An A-Z of A Writer’s Life. I’m gaining such immense pleasure from his writing, I’m going to include some extracts from his essay on Reading here. What I love about Fuentes are his ideas and his obvious love for Mexico, indeed all of Latin America, and belief in the power of books. The spirit of forward motion, toward a better life and better society that is evident in his words is something I’ve noticed in Latin American cinema recently. One interview I read with Mexican actor Gael García Bernal showed the same spirit (and, now I’ve read some Fuentes, I see where some of the things Bernal discussed came from. If I read some Buñuel, I think I’d find some more.) It is something I especially admire, not least because to me, it seems absent from British society.

José Vasconcelos, the first Education Secretary of the Mexican Revolution, published a collection of universal classics, beautifully bound, sometime around 1923. Why publish Cervantes in a country with a 90% illiteracy rate, people asked him and criticised him in his day. But today the answer is self-evident: so that the illiterate, once they are no longer illiterate, will be able to read Don Quixote instead of Superman.

Over the past century, in every Latin American country, we have all witnessed and participated in the creation of a great circle, a circle that travels from writer to editor to distributor to bookseller to the public and then back to the writer. Unlike what has happened in countries with more mercantile development but less intellectual stimulation, in Mexico and Latin American there are books that never disappear from the shelves. Neruda and Borges, Cortázar and García Márquez, Vallejo and Paz; they are always present in our bookshops.

They are always present because their readership is constantly being replenished, never depleted. They are young readers, between fifteen and twenty five years old. They are men and women of the working class, middle class, or somewhere in between, carriers of the changes and the hopes of our continent.

Today, the succession of economic crises endured by Latin America since the 1980s is the greatest threat to the continuity of the reading tradition, which is a reflection of society’s continuity. Various generations of young Latin Americans have discovered who they are by reading Gabriela Mistral, Jorge Amado or Juan Carlos Onetti. A break in this circle of reading would signify a loss of identity for any young people. Let us not condemn them to abandon libraries and bookshops only to get lost in the subterranean world of misery, crime and neglect.

In 1920, as the Dean of the National University of Mexico, Vasconcelos ordered the printing of a collection of beautifully bound volumes of Homer and Virgil, Plato and Plotinus, Goethe and Dante – a collection of true bibliographical and artistic jewels. But for a population of illiterate, indigent and marginalised people? Yes, precisely; the publication of these classics at the University was a way of saying to the majority of Mexicans: one day you will be at the centre, not at the margins of society. One day you will have the resources to buy a book. One day you will be able to read and understand those things that now, in our day, all Mexicans understand.

The book is the intimacy of a country, the inalienable notion we create of ourselves, of our time, of our past and our remembered future, experienced throughout the ages as verbal memory and desire in the here and now.