The red notebook, by Paul Auster

50621The Red Notebook stories, pulled from Auster’s own life or from the lives of those close to him, are explorations of unexpected coincidences. A wrong number becomes the genesis for a famous novel; a hero appears at an inopportune moment; a lightning storm harries a group of campers; a daughter plunges from a terrifying height only to land improbably safely; a Paul Auster imposter materializes. Like a magic show, The Red Notebook demonstrates that “there is much to life that is special and serendipitous — if only we allow ourselves to perceive it this way” (The Washington Post) (from Goodreads)

I feel I’m repeating myself, but, again, this is a case of “This was my first time reading something by _______”. I guess that happens a lot when you just grab a book from a pile without giving it much thought…

The book is divided in various sections. The first one, The red notebook, is a series of anecdotes. As common subject, they are all stories of coincidences that happened to the author or were told to him by other people. He ends the last story saying “This really happened. Like everything else I have set down in this red notebook, it is a true story”, which immediately made me think “No way”. This first part was highly entertaining, though, as he writes about very mundane and little bits of everyday life and makes it absolutely compelling.

The next section compiles three prefaces he wrote, one for an anthology of French poets, one for a compilation of writings by Mallarmé and another for an edition of Philippe Petit’s writings. These three books were works in which he worked as, I guess, editor, in one case making the anthology of French poets, in the other two, translating Mallarmé and Petit. I really liked this section, although the one for the anthology became quite dense, at times, for an illiterate to poetry like myself, because he more or less made a summary of 100 years of French poets.

The next section reproduce three interviews he gave, in which he talks about his works, his writing process, etc. This would be very useful if I had read some of his work before. Anyway, still interesting. In one of these interviews I read something that made me rethink my first opinion about the coincidences chapter, which was nice (I still am a bit skeptical, though). At this point things begin to be a bit repetitive, because at times the interviews asked similar questions, so we read the same answers over and over again. At least, he’s consistent along the book.

Then comes a little article called A prayer for Salman Rushdie (or something like that) and then more anecdotes and coincidences, some of which were already mentioned in the interview section.

All in all, it was a nice book for me. I do like reading anecdotes, particularly when they’re so prettily written.

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Bellum Catilinae, by Sallustius Crispus

40388058In this book, Sallust (86-35/34 B.C.) recounts the dramatic events of 63 B.C., when a disgruntled and impoverished nobleman, L. Sergius Catilina, turned to armed revolution after two electoral defeats. Among his followers were a group of heavily indebted young aristocrats, the Roman poor, and a military force in the north of Italy. Sallust skillfully captures the drama of the times, including an early morning attempt to assassinate the consul Cicero and two emotionally charged speeches, by Julius Caesar and Cato the Younger, in a senatorial debate over the fate of the arrested conspirators. Sallust wrote while the Roman Republic was being transformed into an empire during the turbulent first century B.C. (from Goodreads)

My main interest of reading this was the fact that it was written over 2000 years ago, by someone who was alive during the events. To me that’s just mind-blowing. It’s so hard to relate to things that happened, let’s say, two or three decades before of our time, to have a mere grasp of what it was our own parents’ reality when they were growing up, that being able to read words from, for and about people that existed so long ago, is really hard for me to wrap my mind around it. I had a similar feeling the day I was standing in front (and then walking inside) of the Colosseum.

And to make things a bit more… weird?, the content was so relatable! The debates in the Senatum highly reminded me (quite obviously, and despite the differences) the ones that, for once in my lifetime, I’ve been, more or less, following in our Congress over the last few months. And the whole conspiracy plot is easily comparable to any current political drama in your prefered streaming service.

What I’m trying to express is, I guess, that despite the two milleniums that separates us from them, little has change in the human condition. I’m not trying to re-discover America here, it’s just that, for once, I’m aware.

Marianela, by Benito Pérez Galdós

40192889Marianela, orphaned at a young age, grew up receiving nothing but disdain from everyone. Of feeble constitution, she wasn’t fit to do any kind of mining work, the village’s primary activity, so she was regarded as little else than useless. She survived out of neglectfully provided charity, which never include any sort of education, so she grew up to be a very ignorant child, alien to any kind of scientific knowledge, building up her very particular superstitions from her own experiences of the world around her. A couple of years prior to the beginning of the story she became the companion of a blind young man, which became the only source of joy and feeling of usefulness in her life.

This young man, Pablo, is the only son and heir of a prominent man in the community. Despite his blindness, he was educated by his father, and even though part of the full comprehension of some part of the world is impeded by his condition, his high intellect overcomes his lack of sight.  One of his father’s acquaintances has a brother who happens to be a very prominent eye doctor, and there seems to be some hope that Pablo’s blindness could be fixed.

Pablo has Marianela in a very high regard. Knowing that he might be cured, he even hopes he could ask her in marriage, despite any social difference that there could be. His heart belongs only to her dear Nela, and nothing anyone said could make him  think that Marianela isn’t the most beautiful creature in the world. This breaks the girl’s heart, because the only thing she’s heard her entire life were comments on her ugliness and uselessness. She knows “for a fact” that none of the things that he believes, are real, and that once he’d gain his sight, she’ll have nothing to live for, because she’ll be, this time for certain, a useless creature.  

This book is, I believe, a classic in Spanish literature. I remember the first time I read it, I did  because it was on our high school reading list. And so it was on my mum’s, on her time. The fact that many of the available editions come with preliminary studies an/or activities, prove this point.

Through this edition’s preliminary study I learned that this novel is considered among the realist/naturalist tradition, something I never realized before, as I never considered this novel in context. However, it has a lot more moral content and less natural feeling that their French counterparts, at least the ones I’ve read (see here, here, here and here)

I was happy to re-read it again, as my first time coincided with my last. I do wonder, though,  why would they give this kind of tragic stories for kids in their early teens. I definitely didn’t appreciate its content back then.

La canción de nosotros, by Eduardo Galeano

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Title translation (approx.): The song of us (maybe? When I was checking if this was a possible grammatical construction, I found out there’s already an English written book by that name)

Mariano is back. Back from where and back to where I don’t remember if it’s ever said*. Let’s just said he’s back from exile, and back to find and reconnect with the woman he loved (and still does) and was forced to left behind, Clara. After all he went through, Mariano is far from being the same person Clara met then, and they own themselves a deep conversation.

Ganapán and Buscavida**, in a way of having a goodbye party for the later, who is to leave the city soon, dreaming of having a better life somewhere else, just drunk all their remaining money. They wander around, trying to find a way to collect what’s necessary to buy Buscavida’s ticket, or some food. Ganapán is one of those who seemed destined from birth to poverty, and can hardly expect anything else. At least, he has his heart in the right place. Buscavida, not so much.

Rethinking this book now, I feel Mariano is like Ulysses coming back for Penelope, after having survived his odyssey. Ganapán is currently going through his own, one of a different kind, but struggling, nonetheless.

This was my first time reading something by Galeano. He was recommended to me before, and I have even buy some of his books for other people as presents, but never find myself reading any of them. I had to start somewhere, and this one came to my hands.

By the time this book was published, 1975, Galeano was exiled in Argentina while Uruguay was under a dictatorial government. While I was reading the chapters dedicated to the imprisonment, and the tortures, and even those fragments excerpted from the Inquisition’s archives (so hard to read), I couldn’t help but thinking how ominous they were to Argentina’s own near future (as in 1976 would start the last and most gruesome dictatorship of our history). I was also thinking how curious it was that, even when I was reading for pleasure, I ended up falling into a timeline coincident with my last non-fiction, graduation-project-related readings.

*although one can easily presume the story occurs in Montevideo, and Mariano’s back from Argentina, more presumably, Buenos Aires.

**theirs was my favorite arc of the book, mostly because it somehow made me think, in a way, of García Márquez’s magical realism, particularly their visit to La Perversa de París’ brothel and the characters they found there. And I absolutely adore their names, and almost every name in their arc, as they’re quite descriptive of the person baring them and any attempt on my part to anglicized them would be a complete disaster.  

Letters to Milena, by Franz Kafka

39719998In no other work does Kafka reveal himself as in the Letters to Milena, which begin essentially as a business correspondence but soon develop into a passionate “letter love.” Milena Jesenská was a gifted and charismatic woman of twenty-three. Kafka’s Czech translator, she was uniquely able to recognize his complex genius and his even more complex character. For the thirty-six-year-old Kafka, she was “a living fire, such as I have never seen.” It was to her that he revealed his most intimate self. It was to her that, after the end of the affair, he entrusted the safekeeping of his diaries. (from Goodreads)

In my crusade to be a better letter writer (?) and because I like reading other people’s letters and diaries (this more likely), I was eager to read this book, which came in a large batch of books given away by a friend of mine. Just to clarify, I haven’t read much of Kafka, other than The Metamorphosis and A report for an Academy, so I had no particular interest in his work and/or biography. I just like reading letters, ok? (why so defensive, though?)

There was an introduction, giving a little of context to this correspondence, and explaining that the letters were “edited” for privacy matters of other parties and whatnot (I believe that later editions of these letters (mine is from 1974) are unedited). You know how I feel about that. I can’t help but wonder What. Am I. Missing?

AND, also, my edition wasn’t translated from the original language, but from a previous English translation. I’m sure both translators did their best job etc etc, but I always get suspicious of accuracy in second hand translations. Sorry about that, translators, I can’t help it. (I have the same feelings when I watch a movie/tv show in a language I don’t manage. I know for a fact how shitty subtitles could be when I’m watching something spoken in English, but I can’t double check when I’m watching something in, like, German or Dutch or Japanese or whatever)

Should one have an opinion about other people’s letters? This was not an epistolary novel, which, one hopes, was written with a literary intention, but and individual correspondence, which could help to understand more about his psyche and his view of the world, and could, perhaps, be of more interest to those who study his life and work.

If anything, this book left me more intrigued about Milena that about Kafka, mostly because we never get to read Milena’s answers. The amount of letters sent, almost daily, for a not so long period of time, make me, on one hand, jealous of the post service between Austria and Czechoslovakia at that time. On the other hand, left me worried about Kafka’s (unhealthy?) obsession with Milena. I do wonder if she replied as often and in such an intense manner as he did.

Prohibido creer en historias de amor, by Javier Ruescas

36691791English translation: Forbidden to believe in love stories

“I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere. My family is wonderful and I love them very much, but sometimes I feel like they don’t know who I am.”

At 17, Cali belongs to a very unconventional family. Her parents record their everyday domestic life in videos they post on the Internet. Her siblings have their own channels with millions of followers, and her boyfriend is the country’s most popular YouTuber. Obsessed by popularity, no one in Cali’s life seems interested in the changes she’s experiencing inside, smack in the middle of adolescence.

Then she meets Hector, a mysterious street musician who plays the same song on the Metro every day. It’s the only thing he remembers from his childhood. He plays his song hoping that someone will recognise it and tell him where it comes from. In Hector, Cali unexpectedly finds someone who seems to understand her, as if they’d always known each other. By helping him find his origins, Cali will discover what she herself is made of. (from here)

I got the chance to read this one thanks to Edición Anticipada. Very few of them were given away for a review, and I was lucky enough to open their notification email just as I got it.

Javier Ruescas is one of the spoiled childs of the Young Adult genre in Spanish. Since his first book came out in 2009, he published 18 more, Prohibido… being the last one, which came out a couple of months ago.

I hadn’t read anything from Ruescas before, but I was aware of all the prattle about his work, so I gave in to it and requested the book.

The plot was predictable, as it followed what I think are very classic formulas and tropes of romantic stories: girl has a life that many dream of but girl is not happy with her life and nobody gets her feelings, but she can’t talk about them because she doesn’t want to hurt other people’s feelings, girl meets mysterious boy with a tragic past, mysterious boy annoys girl and, at first, girl can’t stand him but then girl bonds with him and eventually they fall in love and “solve” mysterious boy tragic past. In the meantime, girl finds an outlet for her frustration and improves her life. Add friends, family and whatnot. But, probably because it seizes all these overused and well known ingredients, ends up with a result that is not at all unpleasing.

The novel makes a lot of use of the “social media culture” (if there’s such a term), particularly that of YouTube, something the author himself is very familiar with. While it probably has a lot of resonance to the targeted audience, it does make me wonder how will the story age overtime.

In the end, to me it was like any generic rom-com: it was ok to fill a Sunday afternoon, absentmindedly, but I might won’t remember a thing of it at the end of the year.

Medieval people, by Eileen Powell

35840584Medieval People is an account of the lives of six individuals who lived during the Middle Ages: a Frankish peasant; Marco Polo, the Venetian traveler; Madame Eglentyne, prioress of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; a middle-class Parisian housewife; two English merchants, one engaged in the wool trade and the other an Essex clothier. The author has illustrated various aspects of social life of the era by drawing on such sources as account books, diaries, letters, records, and wills. (from Goodreads)

I’m pretty sure I said this before, but just in case: I’m a sucker for the middle ages. For reasons unknown. Or, maybe, for reasons I’m too lazy to try to explain in a language that’s not my own. Let’s move on.

The original text is from the 1920s, and it a very pleasant and amiable reading. It takes several characters from history or literature to build a “prototype” and explains through that character a generalization of their trade, social class and lifestyle, building an entire story from (sometimes scattered) data taken from the aforementioned sources.

I read chapters from this book as early as my first year of college, second semester (oh, so young!). Since that very particular semester, and thanks to this and other texts from that same class, I felt deeply for it and the middle ages and I have been in a very happy ten year long relationship with it (?). So I was very happy to find this book last year in a second-hand bookstore, and finally read it in its entirety.