As soon as this year started, I saw many posts on social media asking people “How many books are you going to read this year?“, I also saw some other posts inviting readers to join reading challenges to be fulfilled by the end of 2023, so they would finish certain amount of books through the year.
Many people responded with enthusism, and I think it’s good, anything that invites people to read is great, but then I also remembered how much I enjoyed the books I read last year, and how much books helped me get through to the longest and worst part of the pandemic lockdowns.
In both cases, books took my mind away all problems and worries, they helped me travel when traveling was out of the questionsm and they also took away the real life, when that was needed.
So I wonder how good it is to fall into this constant pressure of how many and how fast you’re going to read this year, why not just asking “How many books are you going to enjoy?” with an answer as simple as “as many I feel like“.
I know metrics are part of this world, but we frequently forget that enjoying the things we do is also important.
Regarding this, I think we could add the idea of “Slow reading” to our often always-in-a-hurry-lives.
Espressions such as Slow travel and Slow food have become common in recent years, the same as mindfulness, all of them inviting people to slow down, be really present in the moment, and enjoy the things we do.
Recently, the New York Times published the following article:
The article talks about the book “Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in your Own Backyard“, by Joan E. Strassmann, where she reflects on how we can gain a better insight “into our inner circle of everyday birds“.
This brings me back to my idea of “Slow Reading“, a movement of which Wikipedia has a brief but very interesting article, for those how want to learn more about this topic.
In the end, it’s up to everyone to decide what makes us feel happy, and if reading many books in a year is that, that is also fantastic!
But if somehow some readers feel the pressure to complete a list of books by the end of the year (just because the idea appears so often everywhere), insted of taking their time to enjoy every single book they hold in their hand, then let’s just do that!
Have you ever wondered what it’d be like if you could live abroad for a year? John and Nancy Petralia did it, and from this question, their dream became a plan and, at the age of sixty something, they told everyone that they would be leaving their home in New Jearsey to live in Italy for a year.
What sounded like a marvelous idea then it became true, with all the ups and downs that always come attached to reality. And all those challenges started even before they had packed.
Finding a place to live in Italy, was one of those challenges, along with fitting the dream into the real life. The romantic idea of a Tuscan Village, that came, partially from the famous movie Under the Tuscan Sun, and in part from the questions of their friends, as if they were going to rent a village, make them focused on what they actually could afford. With an appartment secured in Bologna, the dream started.
Then, the akward face of reality appeared again. The living conditions were not exactly what they had expected, and the town, although interesting, didn’t fit into the dream either. But John and Nancy didn’t give up, not even when dealing with a medical emergency abroad in a different language, made them wonder if they should come back to America. But they didn’t, on the contrary, they kept up with their plan of staying in Italy for a year to learn its language and its customs, as well as to travel around and appreciate, first hand, all the wonders that this European country has to offer to those who love art, tasty food, good wine and breathtaking landscapes.
Redesigning their plan, the couple looked not only for a new place but also for a new city where they could be able to ride freely their bikes, mingle with more people and somehow, feel more at home while away from home.
Patience, perseverance and time worked out when they managed to move to Parma, where things finally started to fall into place. It was there, when they actually felt that their dream had come true. Now, they just had to make the most of it, and they did it. Opera shows, how to make Italian cheese experiences, Thanksgiving in a foreign country, encounters with new friends, the visit of old good friends, all of this became part of their time in Italy.
And from all these experience, John and Nacy wrote an exceptional book which they titled Not in a Tuscan Villa, where they tell not only their experiences and describe with great detail the places they visited, but also talk about how hard they worked every day to integrate themselves into the rhythm and syle of this country, where they were actually living in, and not just visiting.
“It took us about a year to write the book and another six months for rewrites and editing changes. We belonged to a writers’ group at our local library that met every week and critiqued each others’ work. That kept us focused and gave us a goal each week.”, tells me Nancy Petralia.
But the dream didn’t end when they came back to America, on the contrary, their year in Italy gave them a new set of dreams, plans and goals in life. Many things in the way they see life changed from their Italian experience and they’re ready to enjoy life even more. So, as Nancy says, they’re heading back to Italy soon to travel around and visit friends. It’ll be their third time back since their Italian year ended.
Their time in Italy also gave them, specially John, an idea for a possible new book, one based on the life of Giuseppe Garibaldi. For that, a trip to South America might be in their near future where they want to visit Montevideo, Uruguay, another key place in Garibaldi’s life.
Since the days of Aesop, animals have been used as vehicles by which humankind has addressed its moral, ethical and cultural identity. For some, this serves to misrepresent animals, privileging anthropomorphism at the expense of the more sensitive address of animal sentience and welfare. For others, this approach allows humans to circumvent their own social taboos to reveal not merely fresh insights into what it is to be human, but also humanity’s intrinsic relationship to animals, with animals, and as part of nature.
Beatrix Potter enjoyed the work of poet Edward Lear, who specialised in nonsense verse and who wrote about a “Remarkable Rabbit”. Potter thus decided to create The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the story of a mischievous rabbit, who disobeys his mother, to play in Mr and Mrs McGregor’s garden, despite all its apparent dangers. From the outset, it was Potter’s intention to use the story to show both human characteristics and animal behaviour.
Peter is at once a playful vehicle by which to assess human foible and to present an animal within a pastoral environment. Reception of the story over time has been mixed. Is Peter a social transgressor within a human conception of the world, or merely the epitome of “the wild” outside the codes and conventions of rural society? Is the garden his most “natural” environment and home comforts a mere distortion of the countryside? And is Mr McGregor, the gardener intent on keeping rabbits off his patch, Peter’s most obvious adversary in the great chain of being?
These are but some of the issues in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which make it one of the most enduring and popular of children’s narratives.
Initially written as a series of illustrated letters to her friend, Noel Moore, the son of her former governess, in 1893, the texts were reclaimed by Potter for private publication, and later taken up by established publisher, Frederick Warne & Co. Its words and images were finalised by the 1903 edition.
Potter insisted the size of the book be suitable for children to hold, and that the animal illustrations were anatomically correct. Her watercolours provide the text with its distinctive aesthetic. Potter also drew the images from the animal’s point of view, a vantage point nominally shared by a child’s gaze, which stimulates the empathy of the young reader. Potter herself is a detached storyteller, narrating the indifferent (omni)presence of the human world.
This clear and precise vision for Peter informed Potter’s decision to resist Walt Disney’s approach to adapt the story into an animated feature in 1936. A 1935 Merrie Melodies cartoon, Country Boy, freely adapted The Tale of Peter Rabbit a year earlier.
Disney, though, an admirer of the hare drawings of Heinrich Kley, saw Peter as an appealing rabbit character that would advance his own earlier creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Debuting in 1927, Oswald featured in 27 shorts, rivalling Felix the Cat, but in 1928, Charles Mintz took the rights from Disney for the character, forcing Disney to create another – soon afterwards, Mickey Mouse became the studio’s signature character. Disney realised, though, that he needed a more iconic rabbit, and Potter’s Peter was his favoured character.
Keen to maintain the tone, aesthetic and copyright of her book, Potter ensured Peter’s identity would always be bound up, though, with the serious tone and colour palette of her own illustrations.
Potter’s watercolours also later influenced the art direction of Bambi in 1942, and her rabbit sketches (1890) the design of Thumper.
Crucially, Potter’s imagery represented her artistic and intellectual skills as a naturalist. This helps to present Potter not as a quasi-Victorian moralist, but as a modernist, insisting upon a representation of what animals and children might naturally do. Disney would surely have made Peter both comic and morally accountable. Potter ensures he is both feisty and fun. As a more incisive fabulist, Potter depicts what Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein suggests (when, ironically, writing about Disney’s characters) is the “factual regression into the animal”.
The integrity of Potter’s design and outlook is maintained in Geoff Dunbar’s later television series The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends, which aired between 1992 and 1995. Each tale is bookended by live-action vignettes, featuring Niamh Cusack as Potter, filmed in Potter’s real-life home environment of Hill Top Farm in the Lake District.
A CGI series, Peter Rabbit, made for the Nickelodeon Channel in 2012, anticipates the more improvisatory tone and outlook of the recent Sony Entertainment adaptation of the Potter tale, Peter Rabbit. The Sony film mistakes Peter’s imperative to return to nature for a need to crassly avenge and humiliate Mr McGregor. Though playful, this detracts from the tension between human and animal explored in Potter’s text. It replaces Peter’s essential struggle for independence, with routine adventures in the garden.
It is important to recall, then, that Potter wrote that Peter’s father was baked in a pie by Mrs McGregor. Real world things really happen to animals. Throughout the story, Peter is aware of the danger he is in. He is aware of his own mortality. Peter’s persona as a “naughty boy” is not played out as an identity by which he is judged or punished, though, but rather, as a sensibility that must simply enact itself.
Children are left to decide for themselves about the consequences of his disobedience and desire. As such, this ambiguity has helped maintain The Tale of Peter Rabbit as part of a canon of literature and film for children that has become part of the very process of their development and socialisation.
We live in a culture obsessed with speed: fast-food, Twitter, overnight celebrity, instant make-overs and cutting edge techno-gadgets. We drive too fast, desperate to get ahead literally as well as metaphorically. And when we get home we surf TV, scroll through Facebook, eat, drink and talk on the phone. Apparently, the only thing we want to slow down in the modern world is the ageing process – and it’s no surprise that our solution to that problem is a quick injection of Botox or a lunch-time facelift.
Far from being an oasis of tranquillity, the world of books is not immune to the demands of 24/7 society. Publishers – keen to get a new writer’s name on the radar – are at the very least likely to commission a book a year from each author. Some want writers to work even more quickly. Six months is seen by some as a reasonable gestation period for a genre book; three months is not unknown. (Literary writers get more leeway, but the pressures are still there. Prizes must be won; the public must be satisfied.) After all, the aim is to get the book out there, in front of readers, on Amazon.
As for other writers, with that brilliant, world-changing novel as yet unwritten, the answer is surely to write one as soon as possible. Until the thing exists in tangible form, then the dream of being a writer will never become a reality. One solution is to sign up with NaNoWriMo, a global writing project which takes place every November. Writers log in, pledge to produce 50,000 words by the end of the month – and off they go. Some fall by the wayside, but the organisers report that last year more than 300,000 reached the target: “They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle-school English teachers. They walked away novelists.”
Up to a point. Those NaNoWriMo completers have certainly written enough words to fill a novel – although a fairly short one in contemporary terms – but this is inevitably a process that privileges speed over quality. Even if it’s accepted that these 50,000 words form a work in progress, the value of writing that much that quickly is unclear.
My own experience is that writing a first draft without reflection can in itself be a strange form of evasion – you keep writing in the vain hope that by producing lots of words the problems in your narrative will resolve themselves. But sometimes it is essential to stop and think – and question. Before I completed my first novel, I began two other novels that hit the wall at 30,000 words. I fell short of NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 goal, but wrote in that spirit, churning out words against the clock, smoking furiously. (I was young then, and thought this was part of the deal.)
There are pros and cons of writing under pressure. Every writer is different, and this applies to speed of production as much as it does to style. In the “speed” corner we have George Simenon, who would have been a NaNoWriMo natural, with an average novel production time of four weeks; and John Grisham, who wrote his bestseller The Pelican Brief in 100 days. One of the most notorious writers both at and on speed was Jack Kerouac who penned On the Road in three weeks, aided by Benzedrine. The result, produced on a 120-foot scroll manuscript, prompted Truman Capote’s killer put-down: “That’s not writing, it’s typing”.
In the slow corner is Donna Tartt, whose career does not appear to have been damaged by producing a novel every decade. Then there’s Tom Wolfe, who took 11 years to write A Man in Full and J.R.R Tolkien, who began writing what was to be The Lord of the Rings in 1936 and finished in 1952. But the daddy of slow writing must be William H Gass, who took 30 years to write his masterwork, The Tunnel.
I’m not suggesting that one group is superior to the other, but it’s important to remember that along with their unique voice each writer found their natural speed. My last novel took four years to write and that seems to be my optimum pace. Some writers need to take their time. Writing a novel isn’t like going on The X Factor – itself a concept which is looking stale – and though impatience and dissatisfaction can fuel determination, they can also be a snare.
After all, the writing is the only phase of a novel’s life that is ours alone. If we do find an agent, a publisher, an audience, our book belongs to other people. Just as an artist is usually more at home in a studio than a gallery, we are in our element when we are sitting at our laptop, inventing worlds. There are no quick fixes if you want to write the best book that you can. And writing isn’t about endings; it is a way of life.
Thanks, Nora, for inviting me to your Christmas Blog.
I appreciate being asked. I feel very fortunate to be in the position I am and would love to use this moment to talk about compassion. At Christmas this is something we should practice more of.
I’m aware of the devastation caused in Mexico and how I felt when I heard about it. My first thoughts were about you. If you, and your family, were ok. When you write you inhabit an insular world where for a period of time your mind is elsewhere, not focussed on the present. It’s a surreal position to be in.
I started writing so that anyone who was suffering may gain a reprieve through my books. I know, when I’m having a bad day, I look forward to the chance to pick a book up and escape. The reality is, for some, there is no escape.
I can’t imagine what it must feel like to lose everything and have nothing. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be in a country separated by a wall. I lived in Berlin in the 70’s and witnessed the devastation the wall caused there.
When I was in the police, Christmas was a time of celebration but also violence and loss. Violence from domestic disturbances fuelled by alcohol and drugs. Loss from, Burglary, Robbery and Murder. It’s as if a notion of survival arises and brings out the worst in people at a time when people should come together.
This isn’t a case of bah humbug. I enjoy Christmas with my family. I feel blessed to be in a position to experience this.
As a writer my hope is that anyone who reads Rubicon over the Christmas period is afforded some pleasure. If I have achieved that then the effort has been worth it.
I’ve gone from one life of service to another. I enjoy seeing reviews where my book has had a positive impact on the readers’ experience. In the police you could see the impact your presence was making. Sometimes positive other times not so!
I would like to thank you for your support this year and everyone else who has contributed to making readers aware of Rubicon. To all those who’ve read it, Thank you. To the team at Fahrenheit Press, all those who’ve reviewed it, thank you. To me, writing is a gift and must be used positively to entertain and provoke questions for readers. I’m in a fortunate position to be able to write. I am thankful for that.
Compassion isn’t a passive act it takes practice and effort. The results are amazing though and the benefits to society immeasurable.
Wishing you and all your readers a peaceful and happy Christmas.
Before being sucked under the spells of retail elves and their Christmassy shelves, let’s take a not-too-serious look at the meaning of gifts over the ages.
The proverb ‘never look a gift-horse in the mouth’ is known across Europe in languages from Icelandic to Russian, but for anyone unfamiliar with this advice, it means we should not judge the intrinsic value of a gift. Experienced horse-dealers amongst you will know that the age and condition of a horse is gauged from its teeth: when you notice that the lavishly gift-wrapped box of chocolates your cousin sent you is nine months beyond its use-by date, you know you’ve been given a useless old nag.
It may be the thought that counts, but what, exactly, were they thinking?
In its purest form, giving is caring with no expectation of reward. It may demand equal commitment in learning to accept graciously. During a hectic working life I dashed off for fleeting visits to a favourite elderly aunt whenever I could. When the time came for me to leave, my aunt would press into my hand a package of squelchy spam sandwiches made with love to protect me from starvation on my 60-minute rail journey home. I could never stomach the sandwiches though I learnt to appreciate the gift with a full heart.
Like storytelling, gift-exchange emerged during the dawn of human history. The gift of an antelope steak given in good faith, accepted with grace, and later reciprocated with a well-knapped spear-head, created whole networks between families, clans and tribes. In time, the exchange of gifts developed into the first trade deals as the relative value of each item was arduously negotiated, but the significance was always more than economic – it created relationships based on trust. Even stories were bartered. Itinerant storytellers have long earned a night’s lodging with a good story, as Odysseus did in Homer’s Odyssey.
Barter remains important in many parts of the world. While living in Papua New Guinea I acquired my treasured collection of clay pots and shells through barter. And travelling in the Amazon, I exchanged my wellington boots for a two-metre poisoned-dart blow-pipe in a Yaguar village (a keep-sake that caused sensational hassles at every airport security check). Both transactions involved forging relationships – telling stories and learning to understand each other.
But in the same way that stories multiplied and diversified across the world, so did the forms and meanings of gift-giving.
A Viking chief was expected to be generous to his followers in dispensing loot from raiding expeditions. By gifts of gold to award valour and encourage loyalty, great leaders became known as ‘Ring Givers’. However, evidence of buried gold hoards suggests that some chiefs preferred to hide their ill-gotten gains underground – the Norse equivalent of an off-shore account. Gifts in exchange for loyalty are still a widespread practice, from the discount offered on your store loyalty card to the appointment of corporate raiders to plum jobs in government administrations.
Perhaps the most dramatic ritual gift-giving is the potlach ceremony, developed to a fine art by the Native American Kwakiutl peoples of the north-west coast. Any social or personal milestone provided an excuse for a potlach, but the biggest feasts for the greatest number of guests, the longest speeches and the most lavish gifts were preserved for the installation of a new successor to the chieftaincy. And everyone in the tribe was expected to dig deep to contribute.
Potlach was all about status. The volume of goods distributed boosted the social standing of the giver, as the value of each gift reflected the status of the recipient, and the more guests to witness the transaction the more powerful the event. To fall short in any of these calculations courted political suicide. It requires no stretch of the imagination to see all of this in world leaders’ rounds of state visits funded by hapless tax-payers, not to mention presidential inaugurations.
Gifts often involve a catch. Even Saint Nicholas’ legendary generosity to children, celebrated in the Netherlands on December 5, was conditional upon each child’s past behaviour recorded in the Big Book. The medieval tradition, where Saint Nicholas’ helpers included frightening characters representing Satan, may have been the stick accompanying the carrots. But modern Zwarte Piet is a clownish trickster throwing tiny gingerbread biscuits into the crowd like confetti. As commercial interests focus on December 25th in line with most of Europe, the devil is forgotten and smart kids claim two Christmases.
Most religions recognised the importance of gift-giving either in shared celebration, as sweeteners to the gods or as a form of wealth distribution. Christians may follow the example of the Three Kings with their Christmas presents, but festive gift-giving features also in the Jewish Hanukkah and Hindu Divali, while giving alms to the needy is a central tenet of both Islamic and Sikh faiths. Although offering a small gift is a daily occurrence for Buddhists, I had not expected to be given an apple by the abbot while visiting a monastery in Bhutan. Luckily, I always take pens and postcards as little presents when travelling and found a spare pen in my pocket to reciprocate.Exchanging gifts appears to be a universal human practice but cultural awareness is advisable. Social occasions for gift-exchange occur throughout the year in China, but in a culture where maintaining ‘face’ ranks highly, what to give, to whom, when, and exactly how much to put into the ‘little red envelope’ poses an etiquette quagmire to the unwary.
My apologies if these reflections disrupt the Christmas gift-list you had already ticked off during the summer sales.
I may be a little biased, but to be on the safe side, I’m giving everyone books this year.
Author Bio: Trish Nicholson is a social anthropologist, author of narrative non-fiction and a former columnist. Her latest work, A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity, is the only global social-history of storytelling. Trish’s other books include two travelogues: Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals, and Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. Trish lives in New Zealand. You can follow her on Twitter @TrishaNicholson and read her articles on www.trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com where there really is a tree house.
Diversions, Distractions, and Delightful Detours …when I came across with this lovely topic I only could think of Mexico City, because this amazing place offers a bit of everything for anyone who visits or lives in this singular metropolis.
You can enjoy a spectacular view from the top…
… a little of magic in the middle of an urban forest,
… an oaisis in the middle of the city,
… sunny days and blue skyes,
and cloudy, scary ones as well.
Sometimes you come across with small surprises…
and big surprises!
Occasionally, a fantastic replica of the Sistine Chapel pops up in the middle of the city…
Or a huge foot ball joins the scenery along with an ancient sculpture and the skyline.
Some other times, you can fine solace in one of the many city parks.
And of course …a lovely bookstore is always nearby!
So, either you have a specific itinerary, or you just feel like wondering around, Mexico City will always be full of exciting experiences waiting for you!