Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Review - The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Well, my 2015 Reading Resolution was a huge bust. I managed to read all 18 Fullmetal Alchemist books, but not many others from my list... *Sigh.*

The year 2016 started off on the right foot. All the wedding preparations are behind me, so that takes a lot of pressure off my back!

Okay, I just said this year started off well, but the truth is the very first book I read in 2016 made me furious. And not because of the harrowing subject matter itself (the Holocaust), but because of how the author disrespected this subject and...well... any reader's intelligence.

The first book I read in 2016 was The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne.

**This review contains SPOILERS.**

I've had this book on my "to-read" list for a long time, so when I recently saw it in the bookstore I thought "what the heck." After reading it, I can't fathom how so many people call it a masterpiece.

For starters, the children in the book read more as around six and eight years old instead of the supposed nine and twelve. Bruno, the German main character, is so naive that one cannot help but wonder if he suffers from some sort of mental retardation. I'm not saying this out of malice; I truly wondered if the author meant to portray him as a child with mental difficulties. I suppose the author wanted to show innocence and lack of malice, but it quickly became irritating and patronizing to children. Children aged nine are simply not as oblivious to the world around them as Bruno, and the way the author depicts children makes me think he doesn't have a very high opinion of them in general.

Moreover, with Bruno being the child of a German commandant in charge of Auschwitz, he should know basic concepts such as "Jew" or "Heil Hitler." Instead, he seems oblivious to absolutely everything. I would expect a German child--son of a commandant no less!--to receive a strict fascist education from the get-go. Perhaps already be a part of the Hitler Youth Groups. Instead, all this is overlooked and Bruno doesn't even know the meaning of "Heil" or who "this Hitler man" is.

Another downside in the book was the multiple play on words which only work in English, even though the characters are supposed to be speaking German. Bruno's use of "Out With" instead of Auschwitz gets old very fast, as well as the use of "Fury" for Führer. These mistakes just don't work because these words are completely different in German so the play on words only makes sense for English speakers. Even so, they're hammered in throughout the book and Bruno even has whole conversations about how he mistakes words--conversations about mistakes that are actually impossible for him to make!

Finally, the last straw for me was when Bruno mistakes the prisoners of Auschwitz for holiday-goers. I couldn't believe what I was reading. I kid you not: Bruno believes the people inside the metal fences aren't doing anything because they're "on holiday." The author, in my opinion, has gone too far. No child aged nine is so self-centered, blind and unobservant. Any child living in those extreme surroundings would be awake enough to know something isn't right. Sadly, this isn't the case for our dear Bruno.

The final pages of the book have been described as a "whirlwind." I feel (just a bit) like a horrible person for saying this, but the moment Bruno decided to cross the fence into the concentration camp, I was looking forward to his death. Even that fell flat. None of the characters were engaging and the piece ended up centered around an annoying boy living his oblivious privileged life until the final paragraphs, where we began to see some of the horrors the prisoners endured. But even then, everything was from Bruno's blundering point of view, and that felt immensely disrespectful to the true victims of the story.

In conclusion, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas felt like a mockery. The arguments "it's from a kid's point of view" and "it's meant to be a fable" are irrelevant to me. I found it offensive and distasteful on so many levels, starting with the way it misrepresents children to the way it skims over the victims of the concentration camp--don't forget that the second main character is a child living inside the concentration camp (a small child who, by the way, would have most probably been sent to the gas chamber during his first month there).

If you're interested in Holocaust stories, do yourself a favor. Skip The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and head straight for a true story, a Pulitzer winner, a masterpiece: Maus by Art Spiegelman.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas frustrated and outraged me so much that I'm going to give it zero Pirates, which is really a shame because just look at that cute widdle face!

Friday, February 19, 2016

American-Spanish Marriage in Spain

So! You're an American marrying a Spaniard in Spain?

I went through that, once...

You have my most sincere condolences.

International affairs go hand-in-hand with massive headaches, I know. Hopefully, this blog post can help you make some sense of all the madness surrounding international marriages.

Here's the situation:

I'm an American overseas. I've been living in Spain since 1996. After six years with Salva, we decided to take the plunge. We live in Granollers, in the Barcelona area. I'm originally from Los Angeles, California, and I have a permanent Spanish residency. The information I give in this post relates my personal experience, so details are centered around Granollers-Los Angeles and may vary slightly from one location to another.

This is the procedure for a civil wedding.

The documents you need to present to the civil registry in order to be married are basically the same ones any Spanish resident needs. There's no big distinction here, just that your documents are going to be more difficult to process because they're foreign.


Forget about searching for the perfect wedding venue. Forget about invitations, cakes, dates... You'll get to that later.

The first thing you must do is drop by the civil registry of your town of residence or your fiancé's town of residence. At least one of the future spouses must be registered (empadronado) in the town or city where the marriage files will be opened, but, once that is done, you can celebrate your wedding wherever you wish.

Ask for an appointment to open your marriage file: Expediente de Matrimonio. Depending on where you live, they can open your expediente that same day, or, if there's a large population, you might have to wait months. Months.

In our case, we visited the civil registry in Granollers the first week of February 2015. Want to know what date they gave us to actually open the marriage file? July 27, 2015.

The date the civil registry gives you will be the date you must hand in all your paperwork.

HAVE PATIENCE! This will take a while!


Each future spouse will have to present the same documents, but the American spouse (me!) will have to jump through some hurdles...

Let's talk validity for a moment:

1) As a general norm, Spanish documents have a validity of three months--90 days.

2) International documents have the validity which is assigned to them in their country of origin. In the case of a birth certificate from the US, the Barcelona Consulate informed me it has unlimited validity.

So, what documents do you need?

- Certificate of residenceEmpadronamiento - This is a Spanish document which certifies what town/city you live in. It has a validity of 90 days.

- ID or passport or residency card

- Birth Certificate - Logically, you must request this from the city where you were born. Once you request it, you need to add an apostille to it to grant it international validity.

In my case, I had to request my birth certificate in Los Angeles, California. My father still lives there, so fortunately he was able to visit the registry office and request the birth certificate. Once he had it, he had to send it to the Secretary of State in Sacramento to receive the apostille, which gave it international validity. Then he gave it to me here in Spain.

In order to be able to hand it in at the civil registry, I had to request a sworn translation into Spanish of the document. The sworn translation cost me €40 and took just a few days. The sworn translator I contacted is from Mollet, a town near where I live. Bear in mind that the sworn translator will need to see the physical copy of your birth certificate in order to complete the translation, so you should find a sworn translator near you.

- Proof you are free to marry (fe de soltería). - This document doesn't exist in the US, but the Barcelona Consulate General (with an appointment which costs about $50) can give you a signed document. Careful! You still need to send this document to the Embassy in Madrid to have it ratified before you can use it at the civil registry. This is a Spanish document so don't get it earlier than 90 days prior to handing in the paperwork. But get it early enough to have time to send it to Madrid and get it back. In my case, Madrid returned it to me within two weeks, but I was told it could take about a month.

- Application forms - To request the marriage and also for statistical purposes--the civil registry gives you these.

NOTE: If you're widowed or divorced, you will need the appropriate documents to certify your current situation.


On the date the civil registry gave you to open your marriage file, you and your future spouse must hand in all the paperwork. Another adult must also be present at that time, to act as a witness.

The clerk at the civil registry office will check that everything is valid and...surprise! Because you--oh lucky you!--are foreign, you and your future spouse must have an interview with a judge to make sure you're not part of an arranged marriage.

In our case, we had twice the surprise because the clerk informed us that the civil registry currently did not have a judge. He left or retired, I don't remember. This meant that our marriage was put on hold until a new judge started working with them...


Let's recap for a moment. My husband and I began this process the first week of February, 2015 (I don't remember the exact date, sorry!).

February 2015 - Request to open marriage file.
July 27, 2015 - Marriage file opened.

The civil registry called to inform us we would have the interview with the judge on October 13, 2015.

I have to admit I went to the interview ticked off. I've been living in Spain since 1996 and I have permanent residency, a stable job, my own home... On top of that, it had been eight months since we began this process, and we had already celebrated the ceremony and reception on June 7 (more on that later...). 

And now a judge was about to decide whether my spouse and I had the right to legally marry. I was more than annoyed. The judge interviewed each one of us privately (questions involved how long we'd known each other, and our day-to-day), and then we were free to go. The civil registry clerk said she would call us once the decision had been made.

*Sigh* So we were back to waiting for a phone call...


By the time Salva and I reached this step, we were sick of everything and we just wanted to get this process over with. We had already celebrated the reception on June 7 with all our family and friends, and we had already gone on our honeymoon.

Oh, why did we do that? Well, because when we went to the civil registry all the way back in February 2015, we had already booked the venue for the wedding. The civil registry, how should I put it? Screwed us over by taking so long. When we showed our astonishment at the wait times and told the clerk that we had already arranged the whole wedding, she shrugged apologetically and said, "Yeah... It happens to a lot of people."

So, on with the process. Several weeks after our interview with the judge, we received a phone call saying we had been approved. The clerk said, "Choose a date: February 19 or March 18."

I was at work at the time, so my husband was all alone with this huge decision. He told the clerk he needed to talk to me first. Her response: "No. Tell me now what date you want." He refused to choose a date without consulting me, so he waited until I got home and he went to the civil registry the following day to confirm the date we had chosen.

Now, about the dates... It turns out you can't choose when you legally marry--at least not in Granollers. The clerk merely gives you a couple options and you're stuck with what they offer.

So we chose February 19... 2016.

Let's go over the marriage timeline one more time, shall we?

Request to open marriage file: early February 2015
Open marriage file: July 27, 2015
Interview with the judge: October 13, 2015
Actually get married: February 19, 2016 (that's TODAY!)

This entire process took just over a year--the vast majority of it, of course, consisted of waiting...and waiting...

On the day you finally sign your civil marriage, you must bring along two adult witnesses.

Once this whole procedure is over...



Now you can live happily ever after! That is, if you still have the energy for it! ;-)

Thursday, February 18, 2016

On Being a Swiss Chard and Rambling About It

As a lifelong writing aficionada, I often wondered how writers do it. How do they give life to characters who are so different from them? Or are there writers who live vicariously through their characters' feats, even if the character is a downright scoundrel?

Take, for example, the character William Hamleigh from The Pillars of the Earth. This is a disgusting, loathful man, the epitome of villainous creatures (who several times in the novel walks the fine line of becoming a caricature). He rapes, he maims, he kills, and he enjoys it all tremendously. But does this show us who the author is?

There's an expression in Catalan which I particularly like: ets una bleda. Literally, it means "you're a Swiss chard." Figuratively, it means that you need to grow a backbone.

Well, when it comes to animal suffering I'm 100% bleda--spineless. I've cried rivers over all sorts of animals and had several nightmares where I wake up in a sweat and trembling like an absolute bleda. The first nightmare I remember having in my entire life involved my kitten getting flushed down the toilet. Another time, more recently, I was a factory worker in charge of snapping geese necks. Yet another time, I was a journalist following the story of a homeless man who would chase stray kittens, impale them, and eat them.

Awful, graphic stuff. So when I came across a dying kitten in the street, of course I scooped him up and rushed him to the vet. Of course I took him home and together with my husband Salva brought him back to life. Of course I cried for sleepless nights (the kitten had an awful habit of scratching his eyes at night and making them bleed--good thing we have a 24-hour veterinary hospital on our same street). And of course I acted like such a bleda that I even hurt my back (lumbago out of stress) and had to miss work.

All better now!
My feelings towards animal suffering are strong, but is that also true for my characters?

While Eneld Cross, biorobotics engineer, is quick to recite the Animal Protection Act, lovable sidekick Seth has a disturbing hobby of scooping out rat brains and inserting them into robot carcasses. Tristan Cross really couldn't care less about animal rights because he's got too many problems on his mind already, and the demonologist Robert Westbrook has performed acts of cruelty both on animals as well as humans--and demons.

Does this make me love them any less? Nope!

Let's return to Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth. There is a notorious scene in which the most villainous of villains revels in torturing a cat, I believe to death. My memory is fuzzy because once I saw where the action was heading I skipped the scene altogether. The graphic nature of the chapter was enough to make me want to stop reading the novel. Are Hamleigh's actions a reflection of Follet's beliefs or values or desires, or whatever you want to call it?

And what about the master of killing sprees? If you've ever read any of his work, you won't be surprised to know George R.R. Martin adores cats. Too bad most of his characters are mere humans! Even though his books are written in blood and several main animals and humans die, no cat comes to any harm. Arya chases cats for agility practice, but the kitties only receive a kiss on the nose once she catches them.

Sometimes I wonder if my characters' actions are, in some way, a reflection of myself.  If you've ever read any of my work, you'll know my protagonists are far from perfect. Tristan is foul-mouthed and has blood on his hands. Eneld, the "good brother" is a womanizer and starts off the series with a drug abuse problem. And these are the heroes--the ones we sympathize with! Antagonistic characters such as Robert have planned and done much worse (just have a look at The Soul Distillery).

To be honest, I haven't done any of the things my characters have (no murders, demonic worshipping or drug abuse over here, Your Honor!), but it's so darn fun to write about them!

So, maybe because I'm a Swiss chard in real life, my characters do the things they do.

What about you? Do your characters reflect parts of your personality? Do your characters show personality traits you find annoying, disrespectful, loathsome?
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