Tuesday, January 26, 2016
I finished reading Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend late last night and had to restrain myself from immediately starting the second book in her Neapolitan series. There is a vivid immediacy to Ferrante’s writing that made me feel I was IN Naples with the characters. I would look up occasionally, disoriented, from reading, surprised to find that I was still in my Canadian mid-winter living room and not in the hot, dingy streets of Italy.
The book centers around Elena and Lila, two small girls living in the same poor neighbourhood of Naples, who become friends after Lila throws Elena’s beloved doll into the dark basement of her apartment building. When Elena retaliates by throwing Lila’s doll, too, between the iron bars of the basement window, their mutual shock at the fate that has befallen their most precious belongings forms the beginning of a silent pact between them. Elena’s words as they stare at each other in realization – “Whatever you do, I do” – characterize the bond they will have for years to come. Together, they attempt an (unsuccessful) rescue mission into the basement to recover the dolls, and this marks the start of an unspoken competition, in which they push each other every day to confront a fear more awful than the last. The determined, fiery nature of this childhood friendship persists as they grow into teenagers, influencing them first to read more books, get better marks at school, learn more, then to stand up to the boys and men of their neighbourhood, and finally to manipulate their way out of the futures expected of them. In short: the friendship between them protects them both from the very real dangers of the world in which they exist, and becomes the most important factor in both of their lives throughout their formative years.
The depiction of the girls growing up, their adventures and interactions with their neighbours, provides the reader with an intimate portrait of Naples during the 1950s. The families we come to know are those of the fruit and vegetable seller, the carpenter, the grocer, the shoemaker. These are the real people who make up a community, and through them we come to understand the rules and realities that govern them. The neighbourhood is rough and violent, but the people who live there share an identity that manifests itself in a fierce protection of one another – by parent of child, by brother of sister, by friend against outsider. This becomes particularly clear on the occasions when the girls venture outside of the neighbourhood, accompanied by the group of boys they know well from home, who react fiercely – and en masse - to anyone who looks at the girls too directly, who appears too forward, or whose appearance offends the nature of the neighbourhood clans.
It is apparent from the beginning of the novel that Lila is quite brilliant. Through Elena’s narration we see a whippet-like girl whose stubborn will refuses to bend, who is able to best her classmates, both male and female, in competitive tests, whose desire to learn causes her to borrow library books in the names of everyone in her family, who can see beyond the circumstances of her neighbourhood to understand there is more to life, and who is able to pull almost out of thin air the circumstances she navigates and manipulates to ensure she and her family are safe and ultimately drawn into a better sphere of living.
But we see all of this through the eyes of Elena, a narrator whose reliability we have some cause to question. Lila, towards the end of the book, calls Elena her brilliant friend, and we understand that of course she IS brilliant, perhaps the more so of the two, that the unbalanced picture we have of Lila the Great comes to us through the insecure, adolescent lens of a teenaged girl. We also understand that, though Elena does not yet see this, her own form of brilliance is likely to lead to a future far brighter than the one Lila has secured for herself by the end of the book. And that Lila herself, her best friend, has given her, through years of pushing her, the tools to reach for that future.
I became thoroughly attached to these characters whilst reading and I can’t wait to continue the saga. I am, however, imposing a break on myself, I have other books on my TBR list, and I don’t want to swallow these up too quickly. Though I am certain I will come back and re-read these books one day, I want to treasure each volume in the series, like toffee to be sucked instead of bitten, in order to ensure the pleasure endures a little longer.
What I loved:
- Ferrante writes so brilliantly, so vividly – and kudos too, to the work of the translator, Ann Goldstein, because it reads wonderfully well in English – and there are all kinds of meta passages in the book during which Elena describes Lila’s writing, and then her own work to imitate that writing, to improve her writing, that I felt could easily have been passages on Ferrante’s own writing. I loved that this is a book about writing and books as well as about Italian traditions and culture:“Lila was able to speak through writing; unlike me when I wrote, unlike Sarrator in his articles and poems, unlike even many writers I had read and was reading, she expressed herself in sentences that were well constructed, and without error, even though she had stopped going to school, but – further – she left no trace of effort, you weren’t aware of the artifice of the written word."
“Professor Gerace and Professor Galiani, who were part of the committee, praised my Italian paper to the skies. Gerace in particular said that my exposition was further improved. He wanted to read a passage to the rest of the committee. And only as I listened did I realize what I had tried to do in those months whenever I had to write: to free myself from my artificial tones, from sentences that were too rigid; to try for a fluid and engaging style like Lila’s in the Ischia letter. When I heard my words in the teacher’s voice, with Professor Galiani listening and silently nodding agreement, I realized that I had succeeded. Naturally it wasn’t Lila’s way of writing, it was mine. And it seemed to my teachers something truly out of the ordinary.”
- The tortuous road through female adolescence is described so perfectly that it took me right back there. The first plump growth of breasts, the acne blooming across the face, the first fleeting feelings of attractiveness and then the crippling insecurity of weight fluctuations and pimples, the pain of watching boys find another girl attractive and not you, the heart-palpitating excitement of a first crush.
- Ferrante brilliantly conveys the sense of the neighbourhood, of how things are done, how they have been done for eons, and then the creaking, gradual changes that are taking place largely at the hands of Lila, and which are so unfamiliar that even Elena, though she recognizes the change, and sees it happening, finds it hard to grasp.
“They were behaving in a way that wasn’t familiar even in the poems that I studied in school, in the novels I read. I was puzzled. They weren’t reacting to the insults, even to that truly intolerable insult that the Solaras were making. They displayed kindness and politeness toward everyone, as if they were John and Jacqueline Kennedy visiting a neighbourhood of indigents. When they were out walking together, and he put an arm around her shoulders, it seemed that none of the old rules were valid for them: they laughed, they joked, they embraced, they kissed each other on the lips… Did she want to drag us out of ourselves, tear off the old skin and put on a new one, suitable for what she was inventing?”
- The character of Lila is just astonishing. I want to read more about her. I want to know what happens to her. The beginning of the book is a teaser for what must happen later in the series: Lila, adult Lila, has gone missing. And Elena writes that she knows Lila well enough to know that what she wanted most of all was to erase all trace of herself off the earth. The rest of this book is a flashback to their early friendship. And I am left wanting to know what happens to get her back to where we started, what happens between the girls later in life. In other words, this series is at once detailed in its descriptions of the minutiae of quotidian life in 1950s Naples, and sweeping in its generational and compulsive story-telling. Quite magnificent.
Wednesday, January 20, 2016
I was primed to love this book, had been eagerly awaiting it since news of its September 2015 release date hit me in late 2014. I am a Franzen Fan. And as another reviewer has said, somewhere in here is a Great Novel. Franzen's voice is often laudable, parts of the story quite fabulous. But in a book about secret-keeping and whistleblowers and the digital revolution, I was left wondering exactly what he intended to say about those things. Other than that, sometimes, the whole truth should not be told. But I can't tell: is he in favour of projects like Wikileaks? Is he saying marriage profits more from truth telling or from secret-keeping? And even more frustrating, several major plot threads were opened up and then fizzled out with no real conclusion, leaving me unsatisfied and a little confused.
I saw Franzen interviewed when he was in Toronto a couple of weeks ago. I was about halfway through the novel and still loving it. In response to a question about the genesis of this book he confessed that he really wanted to tell the story of a marriage. Then he thought, maybe there should also be a child. And then he added some other elements that had been percolating in his imagination for a number of years.
This genesis story is so funny to me, because it is precisely the story of the marriage - of Tom and Anabel - that doesn't quite work. Or the depth of analysis about the marriage seems out of place in a book that initially appears to be quite edgy and so much about Snowden / Assange type leaks - sunlight as the best disinfectant and all that. Once the history of Tom and Anabel came into play, the book started to feel like a bit of a hot mess. The character of Anabel is absurdly intense. She is a film-maker with such an extreme perfectionist streak that she has spent her whole life on one unfinished project, won't allow her husband to pursue any creative endeavours that might compete with hers, turns every conversation into an hours-long intellectual argument, and - critically - only permits sexual intercourse during the full moon, because that is the only time she is able to climax. Tom, on the other hand, proves himself to be so besotted by her that he is unable to stand up to her in any circumstance, even years after they have divorced and there are very good reasons for him to despise her. The story of their courtship and marriage reads as interesting, because Franzen is writing it and he is, really, a great writer. But to have this at the core of the novel felt like a betrayal of those readers whose interests he had piqued in the first 300 pages or so, with stories that promised to go somewhere - stories about Berlin during the Soviet era, the Stasi, the fall of the wall, the evolution of transparency groups like Wikileaks. To me, that was the core of this novel, or it should have been. Anabel and Tom are such extremes that no useful truths can be divined from their relationship. It is a case study, no more. Whereas Pip, the millennial, and Andreas, the accidental hero, and Leila, the determined do-gooder journo - these all felt like people who could carry a novel.
I was also far more interested in the Denver Independent and the Sunlight Project than I was in the history of Tom and Anabel, and then I was sorely disappointed when the story lines for each of those aspects of the book went nowhere, in particular. I am not a naive reader. I do not expect every thread to be tied up neatly in a bow. But the beginning of the book led me to believe that the end would come back, in a satisfying way, to Pip's quest for something more, to Andreas's lack of fulfillment, to the uneasy and entirely impure centre of the Sunlight Project, to Tom and Leila. If there was a marriage or relationship anchoring this book I wanted it to be that relationship, the Tom and Leila one. Leila! Smart, complex, likeable Leila. Not the ueber-narcissistic Anabel. Ugh.
Don't get me wrong: I didn't hate this. There is originality here. There is an enjoyable subversiveness to Franzen's description of Andreas as a paranoid criminal fleeing from his past, whose great fame and advertised passion for transparency arises only as a corollary to his secrecy and need to hide. To the notion of an organization called The Sunlight Project growing out of lies and deception. And I was fascinated by Franzen's portrayal of Stasi-era Berlin, which reveal Franzen's own interest in and understanding of Germany. There is violent crime here, and adultery, and underage sex, and a cult-like camp in the jungle. All of this infused with Franzen's easy writing style. Like I said, it could have been a great novel. I just feel like he got lost somewhere along the way, and unfortunately, so did I.
Monday, January 18, 2016
I read 20 books in 2015, a paltry number, half of what I read the year before, and fewer than the number of books I read in each of the years that my babies were born. If I can chalk this up to anything, it would likely be my job. In February of last year I started the first full-time job since Iggy arrived that is as mentally challenging and time-consuming as the work I used to do prior to the baby years. We also moved house in March. It was a busy year, but in the past that hasn’t stopped me reading. 2015 was different. I went into a bookstore in late summer last year and for the first time ever felt sad rather than inspired. I looked longingly at all the books I wanted to read and bought none of them. Picking one up and holding it in my hands, I wondered when I would ever have the time to read it.
As the year ticked over, something changed. I have started 2016 feeling like I have a grasp on my job and a workable routine going with the kids. My resolutions this year are not set down anywhere in writing, but they constitute a vague intention to nourish myself better in the months ahead: intellectually, with books, nutritionally, with food. To take advantage of this feeling of being a little more on top of things by pushing myself again to be the best I can be – to work out, to eat well, to stop drinking mid-week, to write regularly, to keep a neat house, to correspond better with friends.
Already, I have read one book this year and am reading two others. More on this later. For now, let me turn a last time to those books I did manage to read in 2015.
Of the 20 books I read, about four were chick lit read on holiday purely as a means to relax. One was a non-fiction business book, a requirement for my bookclub, and a few others were diverting but not worth dwelling on.
So, the books of note I read last year numbered twelve, and they were:
- To Kill a Mockingbird: Harper Lee – a re-read. One of my favourite books in the world, a sentiment now confirmed as an adult reader.
- Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee – a fascinating insight into Lee’s writing process and the genesis of one the great American classic novels.
- Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Alice Munro – a wonderful selection of short stories by one of the very best story-writers, and Canada’s second Nobel Prize winner for literature.
- This Book Will Save Your Life: A. M. Homes – a cult novel set in L.A., by one of my new favourite authors, in which a day-trader, Richard Novak, remembers through a series of bizarre events what it is to be human and connected to others.
- Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex – the sweeping multi-generational tale of a family’s emigration from Greece to the United States and the story of the gene that turns narrator Calliope into Cal.
- A Tale for the Time Being: Ruth Ozeki – a really beautiful story about sixteen-year-old Nao in Tokyo, her Buddhist nun aunt, and Ruth, a Japanese-American novelist living on a remote island in BC. This story wraps together a message in a bottle, quantum physics, Zen Buddhism, environmental consciousness, depression, the dot com crash, Proust, prostitution, theories of time and connectedness, and a little magic realism in a way that is moving rather than overwhelming or absurd.
- The Girl on the Train: Paula Hawkins – a Hitchockian thriller by a female writer about a bitter young woman suffering from alcoholism in the wake of a seriously abusive relationship, and who is trying to solve a murder no one else realizes has taken place in circumstances where no one will believe anything she says.
- Station Eleven: Emily St. John Mandel – other than To Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps the best book I read in 2015. This is a literary post-apocalyptic tale in which the story-telling jumps between present-day and a time twenty years after 99.9% of humanity has been wiped out by a pandemic flu. It is the first book in this genre I have read that has left me feeling uplifted, and it is as much about art and relationships as it is about a cataclysmic plague and its aftermath.
- All the Light We Cannot See: Anthony Doerr – the other contender for best book of 2015, Doerr won the Pulitzer for this novel and deservedly so. A beautiful, moving story about a young blind French girl and a boy in the Hitler Youth during World War II.
- The History of Love: Nicole Krauss – I have wanted to read this book for several years, and last year I finally got around to it but I made a grievous error: I listened to it as an audio book. The History of Love is an astonishing story about a precocious fourteen-year-old girl trying to find a new husband for her mother, and an old man who wrote a book many years earlier inspired by a girl he loved, and the events that connect these characters. It is made up of many different threads of narrative, and to do justice to it I will need to read it again, in hard copy.
- Purity: Jonathan Franzen – Franzen’s first book after Freedom, I was desperate to read this but it fell a little flat. At its best, this is a novel about freedom of speech and journalistic integrity and a cult-ish Wikileaks-type project started by an East-German man whose passion for transparency lies in stark contrast with the secrets that lie at his core.
- The Heart Goes Last: Margaret Atwood – Atwood’s latest is a return to form to her earlier writing. Though the book has Dystopian elements to it, it is unlike the MadAddam series in that the world is still recognizable as ours and the focus of the book is a relationship between husband and wife rather than survival of the human race. Peppered with the sardonic humour and feminist wit that caused me to fall for Atwood’s writing back when I first started reading her in the early ‘90s, this was an enjoyable romp of a book.
Here's to a 2016 with a broader, more diverse reading list and more mental energy to devote to the act of reading.
Friday, January 2, 2015
The year 2014 was an amazing literary year for me, though unfortunately much of it went unrecorded on this blog. What with working full-time again, and the kids, and getting used to a new country, AND the hard drive on my home computer conking out for the fourth time since I bought it, I haven't had much time or energy left over to devote to writing and reviews. Which is really too bad, because there has been a lot to write about. This year I met my biggest (living) literary heros. Really - that is no exaggeration. I met Paul Auster and SALMAN RUSHDIE and Ian McEwan. I heard them read and discuss a variety of bookish topics, but I also shook their hands talked to them in person. It still blows my mind that this actually happened. I also funneled all the free time I DID have into reading, so that, shockingly, I managed to read 50 books this year. With a three year old and an 18 month old running wild in the house and Bibliohubby to look after (just kidding, he looks after me, really truly), with meals to cook and life to live, I feel rather proud of myself for fitting enough reading into the cracks that I accomplished this goal.
Turning back to this blog now I suddenly feel inspired again. There will be more posts soon, I promise, reviewing various books and events retrospectively and looking forward to what we can expect from 2015, from a literary perspective. But for now, here is a list, in no particular order, of the books I read in 2014.
1. Eve in Hollywood - Amor Towles
2. Life After Life - Kate Atkinson
3. The Invention of Wings - Sue Monk Kidd
4. 11/22/63 - Stephen King
5. Beautiful Ruins - Jess Walter
6. The Reason I Jump - Naoki Higashida & David Mitchell
7. The Alchemist (re-read) - Paulo Coelho
8. Freakonomics - Stephen D Levitt & Stephen J Dubner
9. Orphan Train - Christina Baker Klein
10. Tempting Fate - Jane Green
11. Timbuktu - Paul Auster
12. The Circle - Dave Eggers
13. Barracuda - Christos Tsolkias
14. The Blazing World - Siri Hustvedt
15. The Children Act - Ian McEwan
16. The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt
17. The Woman Upstairs - Claire Messud
18. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler
19. I am America and So Can You! - Stephen Colbert
20. The Storied Life of A. J. Ficry - Gabrielle Zevin
21. The Cement Garden - Ian McEwan
22. The Family Man - Elinor Lipman
23. The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith
24. Me Before You - JoJo Moyes
25. The Massey Murder (DNF) - Charlotte Gray
26. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry - Rachel Joyce
27. The Invisible Man - H. G. Wells
28. We'll Always Have Paris - Jennifer Coburn
29. The One & Only - Emily Giffin
30. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour - Joshua Ferris
31. I am Having so Much Fun Here Without You - Courtney Maum
32. Summer House with Swimming Pool - Herman Koch
33. We Were Liars - E. Lockhart
34. Damage - Josephine Hart
35. This is Where I Leave You - Jonathan Tropper
36. Scrum: A Breathtakingly Brief & Agile Introduction - Chris Sims
37. The Awakening - Kate Chopin
38. The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupery
39. Not That Kind of Girl - Lena Dunham
40. The Rosie Effect - Graeme Simsion
41. The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde
42. Instructions for a Heatwave - Maggie O'Farrell
43. The End of the Affair - Graham Greene
44. Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
45. Yes Please - Amy Poehler
46. Eleonor & Park - Rainbow Rowell
47. The Strange Library - Haruki Murakami
48. Landline - Rainbow Rowell
49. Fangirl - Rainbow Rowell
50. The Book of Joe - Jonathan Tropper
It's an interesting list. Eight of these titles are non-fiction, though three of those are memoirs (of sorts) by comedians. I feel like this is almost its own genre these days. More than half of the books on this list were written by women - 28, to be precise. I am pleased about this, but it's only half the battle, of course. Harking back to a post I wrote in March 2013, reviewing those books publicly is the other half, a challenge I would like to take up in 2015. Five of the above-listed books are what I would consider to be classics - though clearly that is a complicated term, one which I may well discuss in greater depth in another post. Here I use it to mean a book that continues to be relevant and highly regarded many years (more than 50?) after its publication. Three of the books I read this year, for example, we published prior to the year 1900.
And finally, referring back to a post discussing global literature, I read books this year from nine different countries - the USA, the UK, Australia, Japan, Ireland, Nigeria, France and The Netherlands. That's not bad!
More to follow soon, I promise.
Monday, October 6, 2014
If I had to compare Ian McEwan’s new book to his other work (and we all do this, don’t we, once we’ve read a few books by the same writer, whether or not it’s fair), I would say it’s a little On Chesil Beach and a little Enduring Love. I have always particularly enjoyed those books of McEwan’s in which story hangs together with a philosophical tension of some sort. This is certainly the case in The Children Act, in which McEwan explores the tension between religion and modern medical science, whilst simultaneously composing a story about family, the law, and marital love.
Fiona Maye is a High Court judge in London, in the Family Law Division. Perhaps as a consequence of her job, she is aloof and can come across – even to her husband – as cold and removed. The novel opens on Fiona at home, left in shock after her husband Jack informs her that he wishes to have an affair. He is entitled to this, Jack says, after seven weeks and one day with no sex, and after a long and committed monogamous relationship with Fiona. He even has someone lined up - a 28 year-old Fiona has met. He does not wish to change their marital status, he simply wants a holiday from it. Fiona watches from the window as he leaves their house with a suitcase. She is in her 50s, childless partly by choice, partly because her focus on career took priority until it was too late for children. The state of her childlessness, in the mire of marital upset that threatens to leave her forever alone, is a central concern of Fiona’s during the weeks that follow.The drama at home is, of course, mirrored by drama at work. A new, urgent case comes before Fiona, of a 17 year old boy suffering from leukemia, one month shy of reaching the age of majority, whose parents are refusing a life-saving blood transfusion to him that would save his life. Their refusal is on religious grounds, and Fiona must decide whether the rationale of modern medicine trumps their staunch faith in circumstances where that faith would almost certainly lead to the death of their son. Complicating her decision is the son himself, an intelligent, charming soul who shares his parents’ faith but can’t help reveal to Fiona the potential living inside of him for a fulfilled future life. He is poetic and unusually innocent and Fiona finds herself drawn to him in a way she might not be were her personal circumstances not currently in chaos.
McEwan brilliantly weaves a story about the inconsistency of emotion and law in a division of the court where these two must by necessity coexist. He illustrates the difficulty for judges of making decisions that are right according to the law and, as far as possible, morally right for the people concerned. It left me wondering how on earth anyone in that position could possibly live a normal emotional life outside of court – because in order to do what they must at work, these judges have to shut off standard emotional responses to heart-breaking problems, and live with the very real, sometimes dramatic, consequences of their decisions.Simultaneously moving and fascinating, this is a book I found hard to put down – not least because, as a lawyer myself, I appreciated the details of the legal cases that Fiona deals with throughout the book (reference to many cases is made, although just one stands at the core of the story). And as with many McEwan novels, music too plays an important role, so that one feels that the text and the marital relationship within it ebb and flow to the strains of classical music.
McEwan is back in top form here. I very much recommend this one to his fans, as well as to those of you who are new to his work.Overall assessment: 4 out of 5 stars. I'm not sure why I hesitate to award it a higher rating. I enjoyed this immensely, but it somehow hasn't resonated for me as deeply as Amsterdam, for example. For me, a 5 star rating is really reserved for those books that stay with me long after I put them down, books that I would consider "favourites", to be read again and again. Getting caught up in McEwan's sparse language and razor-sharp observations, however, was, as always, a real joy.