Best books 2014

lampedusa professor and siren

Here are the best books I read last year (2014):

1) The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

(2) Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

(3) The Leopard by Guiseppe di Lampedusa

(4) The Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklos Banffy

(5) Mandala Road by Masako Bando

(6) 1948 by Yoram Kaniuk

(7) Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley

(8) The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott (Volume 1 of The Raj Quartet)

(9) Coronation Everest by Jan Morris

(10) The Great Crash of 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith

What I learned writing a novel in 27 days (NaNoWriMo)

I participated in National Novel Writing Month (called NaNoWriMo) which is held every year in November. The goal of NaNoWriMo participants is to write a novel containing a minimum of 50,000 words. To get there, you have to write at least 1,667 days per day.

National Novel Writing Month

This was my first NaNoWriMo and my first time writing a novel. I managed to write 50,409 words. I wrote an average of 1,867 words per day and finished on November 27. On some days I wrote almost 2000 words, on other days I could barely squeak by writing the minimum number. It took me about 1 hour to 1.5 hour every day, for 27 days, to finish the novel.

I have never shown my novel to anyone and I never will, unless I edit it extensively. My NaNoWriMo novel is quite awful. It is a piece of “dystopian fiction” and has everything a novel should have — characters, plot, tension, beginning-middle-end, and dialogue.

NaNoWriMo tells you to sit down everyday at your desk and write at least 1,667 words because unless you commit yourself to a schedule, a deliverable and a deadline, nothing happens. This is the MOST important lesson for anyone who attempts any kind of artistic endeavour.

Here’s what I learned from writing my novel in 27 days.

(1) I don’t have writer’s block.

I never suffered from writer’s block and it was no different this time. I sit down at the computer and type away. I have tried writing by hand and I sometimes still do, but I find that the words pop out of my head so rapidly that I need to get them down as quickly as possible. When I write, I feel as if I’m on a bobsled or a luge heading down a steep slope.

(2) Banishing the Editor works.

“Write shitty first drafts,” says Anne Lamott, an American writer. NaNoWriMo and writing instructors tell you not to begin editing your work until you have everything written down. This is extremely difficult. In the middle of writing this novel, I violated this rule and corrected my spelling, deleted sentences, changed the names of characters — but not too much. I did manage (most of the time) to keep the Editor imprisoned in an imaginary underground cell. Keeping the Editor underground made sure that I got the novel going.

(3) It’s fiction anyway, so you can do whatever you like.

Somewhere in the third chapter of this exceedingly terrible novel, I was wondering how to end the story, that is, how to rescue the characters who are stranded at the top of a very tall apartment building. I went to bed that night and the solution popped into my head in the morning. As I began writing the ending (you’re allowed to skip around as long as you write the minimum number of words per day), I thought to myself, this is too bizarre, no one will believe it. But the more I wrote, the more believable it became. At that point I realized that the whole thing is FICTION anyway and I get to do whatever I want so long as there’s enough in the story to make people think that the ending is plausible.

(4) Writing a novel is an exercise in problem-solving.

Writing a novel is like pushing a big rock around a maze. Sometimes you hit a giant pothole. How do you get it moving again? How do you get it around the corners of the maze? I encountered plot problems, character problems, setting problems! How quickly I solved these problems depended upon several factors:

  • Dreams: I began dreaming about the novel. Solutions to vexing problems would appear early in the morning, in that sliver of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep. I would write down the solution in a notebook and incorporate it into my novel.
  • Exercise: Running, yoga and walking caused ideas to pop into my head (intriguing plot twists, character revelations, snippets of dialogue).
  • Keeping the inner critic at bay: This is related to point (2) about banishing the Editor, but it goes further. When the problems arise, your first reaction is to tell yourself that you have no talent, you have no business writing anything at all and it’s going to be awful anyway. This reaction impedes problem-solving. You need to loosen up, not take it too seriously. Then, you find yourself coming up with interesting ideas.
  • Remembering how other (great) writers solved their problems: Here’s where years of reading the great works of literature came into play. I found myself looking back on the great novels, plays and short stories I’ve read, to find my way around plot and character problems. If there’s one thing that helped me tremendously during the novel-writing process, it’s having read these classic works. We learn at the feet of the Masters.

(5) The novel’s characters become as real as the people around you.

This is the weirdest part of writing a novel. I found myself having conversations with the characters of my novel. Pieces of dialogue and full sentences would come out of my mouth (when hovering over a stove top cooking a meal or running outside). If I happened to be at home, I would write them down in the notebook. But if I happened to be outside running or walking, I had to commit them to memory. Once I told myself that if I continued to talk to myself like this, someone would alert the mental health authorities. Then I realized that I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area and there are so many crazy people wandering around talking to themselves, it wouldn’t matter.

(6) Getting stuck is really painful but it’s a momentary feeling. One just has to get over it.

Day 4 of novel-writing was the worst day I had. The novel seemed stuck. I had no idea what to write when I got up that morning. The characters seemed so one-dimensional. I felt very anxious. The way I pulled myself out of it was to acknowledge I was anxious and to do yoga. After that, things started to flow. I got the characters to do interesting things and to interact with one another. If I had focused only on how stuck and horrible I felt, I would not have gone ahead.

(7) I have become impatient with the imprecise way that people use words.

What happens when you start writing a novel is that you struggle to convey emotions and to describe scenes clearly. You need to be precise. You have use the right words. Otherwise, people won’t understand what you’re trying to say. After the first week, I found myself very angry at the way a writer had used the word “freedom” in an article about how technology allegedly deprived people of “freedom”. What did he mean by “freedom”? Did he mean “free to do anything you like”? That seemed childish to me, but he did not make clear what he meant by that word. Yet, that’s what most people think of when you tell them that they have “freedom”. I started noticing how words like freedom, democracy, transparency, equality, green, and happiness get thrown around by writers. It is assumed that we agree on the meanings of these words but we don’t.

* * * * *

Practical tips for writing a novel:

  • Keep a notebook – paper or online notebook, it doesn’t matter. You need one place where you can write down snippets of dialogue, twists of plot, and new ideas.
  • Exercise.
  • Write whatever you want to write. It’s not the end of the world if your novel never wins the Pulitzer Prize or the Man Booker Prize. Remember this: “The Leopard” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) was published after Lampedusa died. The author sent his manuscript to many publishing houses in Italy, but they considered it unpublishable. When Feltrinelli finally published it in 1958 shortly after the author’s death, people criticized it for its sympathetic portrayal of 19th century Sicilian nobility and clergy. Now it is considered a classic.


How to cancel the Orange France Internet connection

If you have an Internet connection (DSL or Fiber) from Orange France and you need to cancel it because you are moving out of France for professional reasons (job transfer or finished school), you must send Orange/France Telecom a letter via registered mail (in France this is called “Lettre Recommendée avec avis de réception” (LRAR)).

In French cancelling your Internet connection is called résiliation d’un abonnement internet. You can also do a Google search for these terms to find more information, if you are curious.

However, I will try to make it easy for you and provide the steps on how to accomplish this. You can also call 3900 (if you are in France) to get details, but they will speak very rapidly to you in French.

Here are the steps you need to take to cancel an Orange Fiber or DSL connection. This worked for me.

STEP 1: Send a letter of cancellation and attach a letter from your employer or school stating that you are moving abroad. If you signed up for Internet service more than a year before your departure, you don’t need to provide a “professional” reason for cancelling. You can just cancel. So you can omit attaching the letter from your employer.

Below is a form letter for the cancellation of an Orange Internet connection for professional reasons. I took this from a French website that provides form letters for all kinds of contract cancellations (phone, electricity, etc.).

* * * * *

[Your name]
[Address in France]

France Telecom
La Fibre
Section 40
TSA 90008 59878
Lille Cedex 9

[City you reside in, date of this letter ]

Madame, Monsieur,

Par la présente, je vous demande de bien vouloir résilier mon contrat d’abonnement Internet Livebox Zen Fibre (No. compte internet __________; No. de ligne Livebox _______); No. client ________). En effet, je souhaite mettre un terme à mon engagement dès le [date on which you want your Internet connection to be cancelled] pour des raisons professionelles. Je quitte la France pour aller à l’étranger.

Ci-joint une lettre de mon entreprise.

Vous remerciant par avance de bien de vouloir m’adresser une confirmation écrite m’indiquant la date effective de résiliation (enter the date of cancellation) ainsi que le montant restant dû, je vous prie de croire, Madame, Monsieur, en l’assurance de ma considération distinguée.


[Your name and signature]

* * * * *

Step 2: Go to the Post Office and send this to Orange/France Telecom via LRAR.

Step 3: Wait for confirmation from Orange France. This is the tricky part. Although you are required to send them the cancellation via snail mail, they don’t have to send you confirmation of the cancellation via snail mail. They get to send it to you via email! So make sure you check your Orange email within 7 days (you can go online to your customer page on and look in your inbox. Orange assigns its customers, upon signing up for Internet service, an email address that usually goes like this —

Step 4: Take your Orange router, TV decoder (and if it was provided to you, LivePlug and optical fiber connection box) to an Orange store in order to get your deposit back. Orange will remit your deposit to your French bank account so don’t close it until you get the money back. Ask your French bank how you can close your account from abroad (this involves sending a fax — email is NOT enough).