Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Another Big Autobiographical Novel Series

I'm a bit disheartened at the moment because I cannot, despite having unpacked all the boxes of books (unless he still has some I don't know about stashed in our storage locker), despite having checked the shelves several times, I cannot put my hands on the copy of Karl Ove Knausgaard's Dancing in the Dark (the fourth volume in his series, My Struggle), the book I finished around the time of our first of two moves last year.  Disheartened because my memory is not as effective as I wish, and I tend to supplement it, in my reading, by pencilled notations in the margins and page numbers in the blank pages at the front.

I suppose I'd continued to hope I might find time to say a bit more about Volume 4 (and Volume 3, Boyhood Island, before it). In fact, I trawled through my earlier posts mentioning Knausgaard and really, none of them do much more than defer, always hoping I might eventually wax slightly more comprehensive. Having just last night turned the last page of Book 5, Some Rain Must Fall, with Book 6 due to be released in its English translation in Fall 2018, I can only sigh in relief at the reprieve, because, of course, now I can suggest that I'll write more fully about My Struggle when I've finished the whole kit and caboodle.

And make no mistake, it really is a kit and a caboodle! Boyhood Island, the "slimmest" at "only" 490 pages is also, in many ways, the easiest to read, coming as something of a relief after the weightier first two volumes. By now, I've read some 3000 pages of My Struggle -- no wonder I both wish to write a few words of my own about it, but also no wonder that I'm daunted by the task.

As well, given how time-consuming the project of writing more completely about just one volume of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series became. . . . it might be better simply to accept defeat at the outset.

Just very briefly, though:
--Fascinated by the overall structure as it appears so far: the narrative structure, that is, the chronology, the choice to begin, Proustian-like with a moment from which the entire first novel spirals outward and then back in again.
--The intricate and dynamic connections between the relationships of the author/narrator/protagonist (and these three are perhaps even more closely entangled than in Elena Ferrante's four-volume Neapolitan series) with his father, with his brother, with the women (generally, but not always, sequentially) he's romantically or sexually involved with, and with his mother. Tempting -- or just obvious --  to say the most important relationship is with his father, long after his father's death, but it might not be quite that simple.
-- Loved the respite of Boyhood Island after the first two novels (the first, particularly, was so much more philosophical, essayistic even), although this one also has its dark moments. I was especially fascinated by how many similarities there were between his boyhood awareness of changing landscapes and what was happening all over North America, the clearing of forests for planned subdivisions, an earlier levelling effect of globalisation than I'd really appreciated before.
--like Ferrante's series, again, in being not only a Bildungsroman, but also a kunstlerroman (roughly, "growth of an artist") -- both writers emphasise their early conviction that they were merely derivative in their voices, their doubt that they could be anything special joining fiercely to their determination to be just that. Hugely complicated in the Knausgaard books by Alcohol! There's definitely a level on which someone with an interest in Substance Abuse Literature/Fiction/Memoir would find copious material to rifle through here.

Since I began writing this post almost two weeks ago, we've spent a week in Victoria baby-sitting, and I've managed to buy a remaindered copy of Volume 4, Dancing in the Dark. Still, I'm not motivated to begin searching out passages that impressed me and will defer a rereading (of the whole series, perhaps) until some faroff date when I've finished the threatening-to-topple pile of books hidden between couch and wall. . .

I do have a few passages I snapped photos of of, way back last May. I'll copy those out here to give you a sense of the books and allow me to clear away some of the clutter in my iCloud. . .

Oh, this is the song about the young man who loves a young woman. Has he the right to use such a word as 'love'? He knows nothing about life, he knows nothing about her, he knows nothing about himself. All he knows is that he has never felt anything with such force and clarity before. Everything hurts, but nothing is as good. Oh, this is the song about being sixteen years old and sitting on a bus and thinking about her, the one, not knowing that feelings will slowly, slowly weaken and fade, that life, that which is now so vast and so all-embracing, will inexorably dwindle and shrink until it is a manageable entity which doesn't hurt so much, but nor is it as good.

Only a forty-year-old man could have written that. I am forty now, as old as my father was then, I'm sitting in our flat in Malmö, my family is asleep in the rooms around me. Linda and Vanja in our bedroom, Heidi and John in the children's room, Ingrid, the children's grandmother, on a bed in the living room. It is 25 November 2009. The mid-1908s are as far away as the 1950s were then. But most of the people in this story are still out there.

and this, from Boyhood Island:

Dad knew what the situation was. Lack of self-knowledge was not one of his failings. One evening at the beginning of the 1980s he said to Prestbakmo that it was mum who had saved his children. The question is whether it was enough. The question is whether she was not responsible for exposing us to him for so many years, a man we were afraid of, always, at all times. The question is whether it is enough to be a counterbalance to the darkness.
She made a decision: she stayed with him, she must have had her reasons.

and before that, same book:
Mum was wearing beige trousers and a rust-red sweater with the sleeves turned up over her forearms. Her hair hung a long way down her back. On her feet she wore a pair of light brown sandals. She had just turned thirty-two, while Martha, who was wearing a brown dress, was two years older.
They were young women, but we didn't know that.

and before that, thinking about his mother as foundational in his life and yet so obscured in his memory, he wonders who tied a blue bow tie around the neck of his kitten and answers himself that
It must have been mum. That was the sort of thing she would do, I know that, but during the months I have been writing this, in the spate of memories about events and people who have been roused to life, she is almost completely absent, it is as if she hadn't been there, indeed as if she were one of the false memories you have, one you have been told, not one you have experienced.
How can that be?
For if there was someone there, at the bottom of the well that is my childhood, it was her, my mother, mum. She was the one who [here follows a litany of all the things he knows his mother did for him]
She was always there, I know she was, but I just can't remember it.
I have no memories of her reading to me and I can't remember her putting a single plaster on my knees or being present at a single end-of-term event.
How can that be?

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Little Experiment in Reading Poetry. . . .

Do any of you read poetry? Why, or why not? Would you like to read more?

I'm asking because I think I'm going to try a little experiment here, if you don't mind. A much more manageable experiment than last year's Ferrante ReadAlong, but one that will depend just as much on your participation (even if that participation is simply a quiet reading in the background, no comments required).

Recently, on Instagram, I was inspired to join a  #handlettering Daily Challenge. When I began, I had visions of developing beautiful hand-written alphabets, not calligraphy, no, but something that would make my words on a page bloom with colour and depth and aesthetic appeal beyond their content. I borrowed books from the library, practised with different writing instruments, and quite quickly discovered that the hand-lettering I had in mind demanded far more discipline than I am ready to give.

However, in the course of experimenting, I tried loosening up a bit by copying out a few poems -- I used ruler and pencil to trace straight lines across blank pages, and I used my good pen to write as I spoke the words of each poem aloud. What a satisfying practice this turned out to be, a very meditative way to experience a poem from the inside out.  Also gratifying was that a few of my "poetry in social media" friends also picked up the practice, and we've been enjoying reading each other's choices in their own handwriting.

Given how long it takes to copy out a poem by hand, and how connected I become with each poem through that act -- and also given that I seem to have trouble posting regularly here on my Reading Blog, where there's a wonderful community I love interacting with -- I thought perhaps I could build even more on this engagement with a poem. And that's where my next experiment comes in.

What I thought I'd try is posting a photograph of My Handwritten Copy of a Poem -- and ask you to read it and to leave a comment about something you observe in the poem -- a detail you like, a puzzle you can't solve on your own, an image that sticks, a word you love as the poet has used it -- anything.  I don't think we need to jump to "interpreting" the poem at the moment -- when I've taught poetry in the past (in countless university English classes), I generally try to delay the push for meaning until we've worked out what the poem denotes at its most obvious surface: Here, for example, that might just be trying to sort out who the speaker is, and who is being addressed, and in what form, why, as well as clarifying or determining some of the references (geographical and historical -- the proper nouns, for example). Then we'd usually spend some time enjoying, playing with, the sensory immediate - the sound and rhythm of the words, the patterns that begin to emerge in imagery or in structure.

But I'm happy with any comment you'd care to leave, taking our collective enjoyment and understanding of the poem in whichever direction you choose.  I'm going to change the commenting set-up so that your comments will not appear immediately -- My experiment involves allowing you to develop your own response to the poem without being unduly influenced by what others say about it, at least not for this first round. We'll see if that works, or not. . .

So I'm waiting. . . at the very least, I'd love to know if you read the poem. I'll share any comments in a few days and perhaps say a bit about the poet and about why I chose this poem and how I read it....

*by the way, given that the speaker in the poem refers to "the poem on page 24," you might like to know that the poem does appear on page 24 of the collection.  

Monday, February 20, 2017

Lawrence Hill's The Illegal . . . A Fast Runner, a Fast Read. . .

I've got to find ways to keep this blog current -- it's a project of my heart, really, yet it generally plays a weak second fiddle to my main blog. Or to reading itself. After all, I can't write about books if I don't read 'em, right? But I would like to post more often than I have been . . .

So perhaps I need to introduce more Short 'n' Sweet posts. . .

Like this one, where I tell you that one day a few weeks ago, when I used my barely recovering, post-Norwalk virus strength to toddle 'round the corner to the public library because I had to return two books and pick up one that I had on hold. And between returning and picking up, I had to pass by the "Fast Reads" shelf. The books here are generally very popular ones, usually fairly recent releases, and they can only be borrowed for a week, with substantial fines for late returns. I've read all of Lawrence Hill's fiction, taught a few of his titles in several classes, and have had The Illegals on a Want-To-Read list for months, so despite the 400 pages, I decided I couldn't resist the challenge.

Did I manage, and was it worth it? "Yes" to both questions. In fact, when my energy level slumped down to the bottom of the bucket the following day, having a fast-paced, reasonably light novel to read was just what I needed. I'd already more than met the month's quota for mystery novels, but while The Illegals -- concerned as it is with serious and substantive political and social issues -- allowed me to feel somewhat more intellectually engaged, it leavened its ethical and moral obligations with likeable, rounded characters (some of whom I was amused and pleased to recognise from Hill's earlier novels, Some Great Thing and Any Known Blood) and intrigue and tension enough to keep a mystery reader happy.

The themes of the novel -- citizenship, the humanity of refugees, corruption and collusion in politics at national and international levels, the consequences of colonialism and globalization -- are developed through the plight of a young man who is forced to flee Zantoroland, a (fictional) African country and whose only hope of finding his way again resides in his potential as a long-distance runner. Health complications and the discovery that his sister is in danger (I'm avoid so many spoilers here. . . ) add some lively twists and turns -- as does his meeting with a barely adolescent student determined to make a video that will uncover some of the unsavoury political realities governing the poor black classes in Freedom State, the (also fictional) country to which our protagonist has fled, and in which he is "Illegal." There's a feisty black female journalist, who's also a talented wheelchair athlete, and there's a wonderfully subversive and sympathetic elderly white woman who . . . Nope, can't say more about that for fear of Spoiling. Ditto re the romance that develops with a certain. . . oh, stop! You'll have to find out for yourself. . .

The novel's current action takes place in the near future, and although it's set in fictional countries, the world is ours, viewed through the lens of Satire. But it's a gentle satire, one which allows us to get caught up in the characters' lives, to feel their humanity and imagine what it might be like to be considered "illegal," how it's even possible that we could apply that label to anyone. In other words, it's disturbingly relevant to what's happening in North America and Europe right now, even more so in its emphasis on the difficult and dangerous role journalists play in exposing "inconvenient truths" which some prefer to decry as "fake news."

At times, as I've sometimes found in Hill's work, there is a bit too much information conveyed to the reader (generally about history or politics or socio-economic realities) via conversations between characters, conversations that seem, I have to say, unlikely, at least strained.  It doesn't happen so often, though, that I don't mind overlooking the slight didacticism given that I'm amply entertained while I'm being educated. Not a bad combination, if not one I'd want in all my reading.

In short, I have a few minor reservations about the novel, but I will quite happily recommend it to you.  Although I won't recommend Norwalk virus as the best route to reading time, and I don't know that you need to read it in two days, as I did. . .

If you've read this, or if you do, let me know what you think, would you?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

January Reading

In January last year, I wrote that I wanted to write here more regularly, and that I thought a way to do that would be to post as I was reading a book rather than waiting until it was finished.  Overall, although there were many fallow periods, thanks to the realities of moving (twice!) and travelling, as well as the complication of throwing a ReadAlong into the mix, I think I managed reasonably well.

I'd hoped to do even better this year. After all, theoretically we're settled now, the moving over, the travelling perhaps less ambitious (in fact, we have a few plans up our sleeves, but nothing's sorted yet). There should be time for more attention to my Reading Blog.

And yet.....

While the cold/flu I'm (crosses fingers, knocks wood) leaving behind has sat me down for more reading time, it robbed me of the energy for writing about what I've read. I'm hoping I can change that pattern next month, but for now, I'll just tell you quickly what I've read this year, and then perhaps you can share your Just-Read list...

Not surprisingly, given my sad invalid state at the year's start, there's a high proportion of mysteries and light reading. I should also note that my reading was driven in part by having several books I had on hold at the library become unexpectedly available. Some of them were high-demand, and I couldn't risk saying "Not right now" and seeing them disappear for months. . . .

That's how I began the year with Michael Connelly's The Wrong Side of Good-bye. It's the first Harry Bosch mystery I've read for at least a couple of years (somehow I haven't been caught by Connelly's Lincoln Detective), and it was okay but without the development of Bosch's character which has been a central appeal for me. I'll probably read the next one, if there is one, but sadly, I'm feeling a bit ho-hum about this (probably Connelly is as well, thus Harry's Lincoln-driving half-brother).

Libraries are dangerous places if you're trying to control your reading and proceed through your To-Be-Read lists in an orderly fashion. If you have as little discipline as I do and you spot titles you'd forgotten about but wanted to read . . . . which is how Dionne Brand's Love Enough came home with me. Brand is a Canadian poet, novelist, essayist, memoirist whose work explores, if I can be so crude as to condense, both longing and belonging, individual identity and community.  Her writing is always demanding but always -- even when, as she often does, she's writing about traumatic historical/political events, indicting colonial, imperialistic horrors--always her writing is beautiful, lyrical. This novel is slight, and despite an unavoidably central violent thread, it's surprisingly delicate, tentative, impressionistic even.  Intersecting narratives follow several characters over a short period across the city of Toronto, which returns as a favourite character of Brand's work.  Somehow, although the novel is slight, and the period it covers is very limited (the immediate wake of the (violent) action which provides its momentum), it draws clear lines between various characters' actions and their "root causes" (without ever being as simplistic as my scare quotes might imply). And as all of Brand's work seems to, and as the title emphasises, the novel seems to balance the personal against the political, and to wonder if our love for each other (and she can be so good on the complications of relationship) can be enough to overcome the social and political realities we're caught up in.  

Yes, another important novel that I've seriously under-reviewed, but so far, remember, I've only intended this blog as a place to (briefly!) record and respond to my reading -- and, hopefully, to generate a bit of conversation around mine and yours....

As I finished Love Enough, the library emailed to let me know that two titles had come available.  The first was by Hape Kerkelling, apparently a very popular German comedian, and its title describes it aptly enough: I'm Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago. (translated by Shelley Frisch).  Entertaining enough, and it will help to form an impression I'm gathering overall of the walk to Compostela.

The other title I borrowed from the library was Ben Abramovich's Midnight Riot, the first book in Abramovich's Rivers of London series featuring Peter Grant, a young officer in the London Metropolitan Police -- who's recruited into wizardry by a special, kept-under-wraps division dealing with the Supernatural forces that "disturb the Queen's peace." I'm not often seduced into fiction with a supernatural element (although yes to Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and more recently, Deborah Harkness's Book of Witches trilogy). But this mystery novel was a great romp through the streets of London -- fun to recognise streets, parks, historic buildings, and even more entertaining to tromp backwards in time through a few of them, watching the city's geography transform via its history. Thanks to Annie for recommending this one -- I'll probably get through the rest of the series eventually as well.

Next, my daughter pressed André Alexis' The Hidden Keys on me. I'd given it to her for Christmas and she'd chewed through it very quickly so that she could swap it for my copy of his Fifteen Dogs. Because I'm determined to publish this post in January, but also determined to make it to yoga today and to get to my physiotherapy appointment, I'm going to have to stop simply at recommending this one to fans of literary mysteries with interesting characters and a fascinating examination of moral dilemmas plus very stylish writing -- this is one of Alexis's not-yet-completed quincunx, and it's fun to note a trio of characters from Fifteen Dogs make a cameo appearance.

Patricia Cornwell's Chaos -- Pater gave me this for Christmas, knowing that we've both enjoyed the Kay Scarpetta mysteries in the past. This is not as good as the early ones, but it's better than some of this series' more recent volumes -- much less bloated, better edited, although I think the prolonged career of the uber-madwoman Carrie Grethen is long past straining credulity. I would say there's a return to the character development and focus on relationships that pulled me in to the early titles in the series. So, overall, not bad. . . . if you can borrow from the library and have time on your hands.

Elaine Sciolino's The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs. Paris lovers will enjoy this book if they're interested in the intimacies of its neighbourhoods. Sciolino blends historical/architectural research with her personal experience getting to know her neighbours in this street that runs through the 9th and 18th arrondissements. Her keen observation and her frank self-awareness make for a charming memoir/travelogue. Recommended.

And that will have to do. We'll see if February can see me write a bit more often here, although with only 28 days. . . .

But what about you? Perhaps you can make up for my paucity of writing here by telling me what you've enjoyed reading lately. Or what you've got on your nightstand for next month. . .

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

2016 Reading

January 10th, and although this cold or 'flu is still slowing me down, it is abating (slept right through last night without coughing myself awake!); I'm going to take advantage of gradually returning health to (finally!) post my 2016 Reading List -- only four days further into the year than I managed with my 2015 Reading List, assuming I manage to click on "Publish" today.

To introduce this list with a brief summary of the year's reading, I scrolled back through my 2016 posts. The first January post not only summed up my 2015 Reading, but also expressed some hopes and curiosities about what I might read in 2016 and how my retirement might affect the way I put this list together -- whether I'd offer more detail here about the titles. Turns out, not so much, but there is a discernible effort here to make a few comments as I add a title to the list during the year.

Still, some books -- even ones I really liked, get nothing more than author and title, and I regret that. Generally, though, I'll tell you -- either right here or on the hot-linked post -- if I hated or was bored enough by the book to warn you off it.

Another big regret -- and I might try to write about this here soon -- is that I didn't manage to follow through with my intention, as declared in this post, to read more poetry this year. But that failure leaves me with the happy task of trying again. Figuring out how that's going to work will tie in with my current project of rearranging books on my new bookshelves. More later.

On the other hand, while it may have had mixed results and while the format could be improved, I'm really pleased that I followed through with the idea of a ReadAlong, and most of the posts from the year's last quarter demonstrate the rich collective potential of this blog as manifest in the readalong I hosted of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend-- I worried that "rich. . . potential" might sound self-promoting, but I mean us collectively, you, as part of this blog, just as much as me. Obviously, without my writing, the blog wouldn't be here, but it's equally true that it would neither continue to exist nor be nearly as interesting, without your engagement, your insights, and the wonderful conversations that develop among you.  I hope to be able to try something else collaborative this year, although I'm going to hold off on committing for the moment.

As for Best Books.  I'm never good at answering those "favourite books, favourite movies, favourite songs" questions.  But I've highlighted the standouts of the year for me in Green -- to stand out, for me, means some combination of style/structure and content, but otherwise my choices might struck other readers as uneven, and while you might like some of my standout choices, you might be disturbed by others (the Marlon James isn't easy reading! Nor the Anthony Marra or Hanya Yanagihra -- and Knausgaard's content doesn't disturb in the same way, but his style is demanding).
I also highlighted my favourite mysteries of the year in aqua, but I found most of the mysteries listed here worth recommending -- especially the Donna Leon.

1. Gertrud Schnackenberg, Heavenly Questions
2, André Alexis, Fifteen Dogs
3. Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings
4. Cynthea Masson, The Alchemists' Council -- Note that when I reviewed this book, I did so from a reading copy, and the book hadn't been published yet. It was released a month or so ago, and I'd love to hear from you if you should get a copy (available in trade paperback and in e-book version)
5. Donna Leon, Death and Judgment
6. Virginia Baily, Early One Morning
7. Paul E. Paolicelli, Dances with Luigi
8. Ian Rankin, Even Dogs in the Wild
9. James H.S. McGregor, Rome from the Ground up -- Still dipping into this, not finished but will before year-end. Added January 10th 2017, NOPE, not finished yet, although I'm still enjoying dipping....
10 Haruki Marukami, What I Think about when I Think about Running (began last year; finally finished)
11. Karl Ove Knausgaard, Boyhood Island -- still hoping to write something more about this someday. For now, here's a slight paragraph. . .  I loved it! Delightful bit of respite in the series, perfectly placed to work retroactively against the earlier volumes
12. Paolo Giordano, The Solitude of Prime Numbers -- liked this very much, but never found time to review
13. Peter Robinson, Before the Poison
14. Emily St. John Mandel. Station Eleven
15. Hanya Yanagihra. A Little Life. I'm still thinking about this one. Thinking about how manipulated I was, emotionally, even as part of me registered incongruities of circumstance, character, coincidence. Wondering -- admiringly, I think -- how, precisely, the author managed that, what was going on stylistically, how deliberate was it. There's a play with stretching realism's possibilities that very much intrigues me in retrospect. But I do understand why some readers hated or resented the novel.
16. Michelle Gable. A Paris Apartment 
17. Paul Kalinithi. When Breath Becomes Air
18. Patricia Cornwell. Flesh and Blood
19. Mary Karr. The Art of Memoir In the midst of moving, never managed to finish this before having to return it to the library. May try to borrow it again. . .
20. Patricia Cornwell, Depraved Heart
21. Karl Ove Knausgaard, Dancing in the Dark Another I still hold out hope I might find time to write about -- really enjoyed and would recommend. At least, I'd use this one (and Boyhood Island) as incentive/promise to encourage readers to stick with the first two vollumes in the series. Sort of an "It Gets Better" promise. . . .
22. Donna Leon, Acqua Alta
23. Chevy Stevens, Those Girls
24. Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic Didn't quite finish before I had to return it to the library, but I think I'd already got the gist. Several passages made the book worthwhile, and if you're looking to rev up your creativity, it's very much worth dipping into. But this is really a magazine article s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d into a book.
25 Sunjeer Sahota, The Year of the Runaways Very moving novel about intersecting characters, Indian immigrants both illegal and legal-but-precarious trying to make a better life in England but barely able to find a living day to day, never mind to get ahead. Timely reading for me, as I finished this not long before the Brexit vote and I was so alert to how much Britain's (and many other countries') economy depends on migrant workers such as these -- yet how exploited and mistreated they can be.
26. Jonathan Evison, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! Quirky, cute-enough novel that my daughter passed along to me, it's about a widow in her late 70s, adjusting to life without her husband and re-evaluating her life. At least, the narrator seems to be evaluating it for her, sometimes rather patronisingly. I wasn't quite sure how much I liked his tone, quite honestly. He (I couldn't think of the narrative voice other than as "he," although there's no concrete evidence for that assumption) provided context for the narrow safeties she'd Harriet had chosen throughout her many constrained, suburban, bourgeois life, but still seemed more judgemental than I was comfortable with. Still, I found it amusing enough with the appearance of her husband's ghost, trying to warn her about something she's soon to find out. No spoilers here, so you'll have to see for yourself. Let me know if you do. . .
27. John Farrow,  Seven Days Dead.  Just so good, this Emile Cinq-Mars series, and this latest is a juicy, big, ever-so-satisfying mystery full of interesting and entertaining characters and a dramatic setting (Grand Manan)
28. Steve Burrows, A Siege of Bitterns, Great fun, the first in a series of Birder Murder Mysteries. . . if you're at all interested in Birding, this is the mystery for you . . .
29. Francine Ruel, Petite Mort à Venise, Fun to practice my French via reading about three "women of a certain age" discovering Venice together. A charming novel, delightful armchair travel. . .
30. Julia Keller, A Killing in the Hills
31. Teju Cole, Open City Wrote a bit about this here and here
32. Steve Burrows, A Pitying of Doves. second Birder Murder mystery, at least as satisfying as the first, with very promising character development that augurs well for the future of the series. The brilliant, if unconventional, detective (a Canadian ex-pat working in north coastal England) longs to devote himself to his first passion, birding, but his talents at crime-solving make it unlikely he'll ever be allowed to do so. . . Great descriptions of countryside, of birds and their habitats, and of the sometimes peculiar behaviour of the birding community.
32. Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
33. Julia Keller, Bitter River
34. Donna Leon,  Quietly in their Sleep
35. Tena Štiviçić, short story "The Truth about the Dishwashers," in London/33 boroughs shorts,          Volume 2: West (London: Glasshouse Books, 2010) -- wrote a few words about this here
36. Anne Berest, Sagan: Paris 1954, trans. Heather Lloyd -- I quoted from this here
37. Denise Mina, The Field of Blood, will definitely read more by her -- great setting -- not just the physical descriptions of the city, but also the family and community, the sexism of the day...
38. Jhumpa Lahiri. In Other Words
39. Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney. The Nest, this dysfunctional family might make you sigh with exasperation quite frequently, but there's also much to like, even admire, about many of the characters, and the resolution is neat, satisfying yet not tritely so. . .
40. Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday. Really loved this and would happily reread.  Suggests a conversation with Downton Abbey, offering a more prolonged exploration of a young female servant's position in the social hierarchy of that day, just at a moment when it began to seem possible to break out of such rigidly defined class and gender roles. Lyrically written, psychologically sensitive and credible, deft observations about writing and identity and memory.
41. Jen Lee and Tim Manley, The Ten Letters Project
42. Annie Proulx, Barkskins
43. Elena Ferrante, La Figlia Oscura
44. Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
45. Donna Leon. Fatal Remedies
46. Jussi Adler-Olsen, A Conspiracy of Faith
47. Susan Faludi, In the Darkroom
48. Carol O'Connell, Blind Sight
49. Dianne Hales, La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language
50. Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies
51. Michael Dibdin, Vendetta (an Aurelio Zen Mystery)
52. Donna Leon, Noble Radiance
53. Donna Leon, Friends in High Places
54. Yann Martel, The High Mountains of Portugal -- I loved this -- it defies easy genre categorisation, reminding me slightly (and its slightness would seem to deny the comparison, honestly) of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas in its generation jumping, in the thinness of the narrative thread that nonetheless holds together enough to amuse and engage. I bought the e-book to read via my Kobo app, and again I'm annoyed that such a purchase doesn't come with a discount for buying the hard copy -- this is a book to reread.
Especially interesting if human-animal interrelationships interest you, or creative grief and mourning, or landscapes -- northern Portugal, where the mountains are, it turns out, not so high. . . .In some interesting ways, I think I could argue it #readswellwith Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, although you'd have to be prepared to grant me considerable leeway. . . Also perhaps with Rebecca Solnit's Getting Lost or even any book on walking....
55. Ian McEwan. Nutshell Also bought this as an e-book. An amusing 21st-century rendering of Hamlet from the unborn Hamlet's in-womb position, eavesdropping on his Uncle Claud's intrusions onto his father's territory. . . Were I to go back and reread this, I'd want to look more closely at some slightly reactionary bitterness that bothered me -- was it character's or author's and did it creep close to proselytising, which I think best left out of literature. . . On the whole, though, engaging if disheartening (on technology, globalisation, refugees and migration and the failure of the Europe experiment, etc. etc.)
56. Georges Simenon, Maigret et le Marchand de Vin, mentioned here, and here, briefly. Thoroughly enjoyable to read this in French, in France -- wondering how it could be that I haven't read Simenon, met Maigret, before now. Impressive how fresh the mystery still seems some 40, nearing 50 years later, despite astonishing changes in technology. Human nature doesn't change so much, and what an observer Simenon was...
57. Donna Leon, Trouble at Sea
58. Lauren Groff, Arcadia. I gave very short shrift to this one here. I might add now that it would read well with Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven
59. Maria Semple, Where'd You Go, Bernadette. Charming book about an adolescent's quixotic search for her eccentric, brilliant mother who disappears after a series of erratic events.
60. Peter Robinson, When the Music's Over
61. Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia, Another I couldn't finish within the allotted time for a high-demand library e-book -- I suspect my name only got to the top of the Holds list because of the holidays -- everyone else was smart enough to press Pause on their holds! I appreciated getting a chance to skim through this, and there were certainly comments about Ferrante's campaign to preserve her privacy (and her writing time) that resonated with me. In general, from the quarter or so of the book that I read, she makes her point well, demonstrating that her biography isn't nearly as interesting as her fiction -- at least not that which she's willing to divulge.
62. Diana Athill, Alive, Alive, Oh!
63. Tana French. The Trespasser
64. And, of course, I reread Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, for the pleasure of Reading Along with you. If you're only getting to this novel now, you might find our conversation interesting, even productive, as you sort out what the book means for you -- and keep in mind that the comments are automatically forwarded to me, so that even though the post might be stale-dated, our conversation about it can happen in real time...

So there it is, my 2016 Reading List. Let me know what you think or compare notes or ask me questions about any of these titles. I'm already two books into my 2017 Reading List, and I'm trying to get back to another intention I set out here earlier in 2016, to post more frequently, even if that means less comprehensively (at least, less comprehensively all at once, but with the possibility that comprehensiveness might build over several posts).

Friday, December 16, 2016

Ferrante ReadAlong -- Trying to Wrap This Up, Impossibly. . . .

Okay, here goes. After beginning this ReadAlong perhaps too precipitously back in September, I'm keen now to finish before Christmas. I've enjoyed the opportunity to consider the novel more carefully and have been gratified by how much your observations have opened the text for me and, I hope, for all of us. Were I to host another ReadAlong, I'd make some changes to the structure and process, but overall, despite the many, many hours it's taken (over too many months, I suspect, to keep you all in the loop) I'm declaring the experiment a qualified success.

But the wind-up is going to be much less elegant than I might have hoped, and we'll close with enough questions, surely, to justify yet another reading, or at least a thumbing back through the pages.

Sexuality, for example. Had I more time, I'd trawl back through the chapters for every reference to the girls' awareness of the sexuality in the adult lives around them, and then of the gradual development of their own sexuality -- as sexual subjects and sexual objects both. Would you agree with my saying that Lenù, even writing as Elena in later life, doesn't know much about Lila's sexuality? She uses her as a measuring stick against which to gauge the changes in her own body during adolescence, pleased to begin menstruating before Lila but then puzzled and even dismayed to see Lila's delayed development boosting her yet again, in Lenù's eyes, into the lead, Lila's sexual allure eclipsing Lenù's accomplishments. Lenù sees that Lila becomes a deceptively powerful sexual object for the boys and men in their lives, but there is no sense in the narrative of Lila as a sexual subject.

And as Elena reviews her early years, it's clear that she puzzled over her own sexuality, both as an object of desire and as a young woman exploring the possibility of intimate physical pleasure (always with the hovering spectre of "the mothers," of women aged out by the apparent consequences of a sexual life). Obviously, the abuse by Sarratore Senior constitutes a very significant moment in Elena's sexual life. What I'd love to talk to you about over a glass or two of wine is the impossibility, for Lenù, of ever divulging this experience to anyone, even to Lila (and for me, this forms an interesting parallel with Lila's delayed disclosure of her dissociative episodes -- in her narrative, Elena emphasises both phenomena as not being revealed until years later).

While the girls were able to offer each other an intellectual, sometimes emotional, companionship that otherwise didn't exist in their community, they remained isolated in their experience of their sexuality.  The curiosity and (limited) pleasure that Lenù finds in the (limited) experimentation she indulges in with Antonio becomes shameful to her when she finds that despite their engagement, their access to privacy, a bed in their future home, Lila hasn't allowed Stefano such liberties, nor does he want to take advantage of those liberties before marriage.  This precludes the possibility, then, of Lenù discussing the potential pleasures of sex with the only candidate for such a conversation.

And what to make of the long passage in which Elena, as a woman in her 60s writing her friend back from disappearance into visibility, describes Lila, naked, as she was immediately after calling Lenù her "brilliant friend," telling her she had to keep studying, to be "the best of all, boys and girls." It's an extraordinary passage, one in which Lenù sees Lila naked for the first time as she helps her bathe and then helps her into her wedding dress.  If we were at a book club gathering, wine glass in hand, I might ask to read these several paragraphs out loud, so powerful are they.  First, they're introduced by Elena's declaration of the "embarrassment" she now recognises as "the embarrassment of gazing with pleasure at her body" hours before she is "disfigured" by her new husband.

But that paragraph quickly turns from "today" to "at the time," and the turn is marked by a switch from first-person voice to second-person. She claims a "tumultuous sensation of necessary awkwardness" speaks of being in "a state" of "turmoil," of "violent emotion that overwhelms." The word "turmoil" is repeated, in contrast with the "undisturbed innocence of the one who" causes it. She recreates the lingering journey of her gaze in a litany of precisely adjectived body parts, and she concludes with the recollected frustration of having "to act as if it's nothing, when instead everything is there, present, in the poor dim room, amid the worn furniture, on the uneven, water-stained floor, and your heart is agitated, your veins inflamed" (313).

Of course, this passage invites speculation about Elena having latent lesbian desire. Perhaps. Perhaps many of us did, in adolescence. But my own reading habits (critical methodologies having been honed, disciplined, by years of academic training, I will admit) preclude going terribly far with this speculation. Primarily, it seems reductive to me, and I'm not at all sure it contributes much understanding to either the novel or the series as a whole. What is clear from this passage is that Elena is telling us something about what she has learned to do with her feelings, particularly about those concerning intimate aspects of her physical and emotional life. As she writes, "I had a confusion of feelings and thoughts: embrace her, weep with her, kiss her, pull her hair, laugh, pretend to sexual experience and instruct her in a learned voice, distancing her with words just at the moment of greatest closeness." But in Lenù's estimation at the time, none of these responses were possible. Desperately, "it suddenly seemed to me that the only remedy against the pain I was feeling. . . .was to find a corner secluded enough so that Antonio could do to me, at the same time, the exact same thing."

Obviously, even in these few pages, we have so much to consider. But also, in these last chapters, there is Maestra Oliviero's rejection of "Cerullo" as the teacher now calls her, when she deigns to recognise her at all. Lila never understands the Maestra's denial of her, but the teacher has earlier told Lenù that the "beauty of mind" her friend had from childhood had "ended up in her face, in her breasts, in her thighs, in her ass, places where it soon fades and it will be as if she had never had it." Harsh as these words are, Maestra Oliviero outlines effectively the dangers to any bright girl of trusting to, even enjoying, her physical and/or sexual beauty. Perhaps girls and women in higher classes, in different neighbourhoods, might escape some of these consequences, but Lenù's path, her teacher wants her to understand, is the more tangled one, that of "the plebs" (329).

Does Lila know this as well? Does she suspect her own way is misguided? Certainly, she is shaken by the teacher's response to her visit and asks, in its aftermath, while preparing to dress for her wedding, whether she's making a mistake. How sincere is she in calling Lenù her "brilliant friend"? How much might she hope that, trying two different paths, one of them might make it -- and hence, it's necessary to push Lenù onward and out...

Oh, I'm so hoping you're going to leap in with observation and insight and argument that will prolong and deepen our understanding and enjoyment of this brilliant first volume in this important series. As for me, I really have to wind down. . . I've spent another hour just now, adding to this post, and it's time to be done with it, to get back to the lists.

Possible items still needing commentary:
- Lenù finally succeeds in writing something in a voice she feels good about: "Naturally it wasn't Lila's way of writing, it was mine. And it seemed to my teachers something truly out of the ordinary" (2760
- increasingly, Lenù's success at school separates her from her community. Lila included, this community wants her to succeed, is proud of her academic achievement, pushes her toward it, but is not at all interested in indulging her intellectual interests in conversation.
- connected with this, the disappearance (an early foreshadowing) of "the Lila who had written" the letter. The earlier "Cerullo was as if immolated" and "we had suddenly ended up in two different worlds" -- And the very sad binary of possibilities this suggests, with Lenù as "a sloppy disheveled, spectacled girl bent over tattered books that gave off a moldy odor" and Lila "on Stefano's arm in the clothes of an actress or a princess, her hair styled like a diva's" [but note here that even though she's consigned to the less attractive side of the binary, Elena depicts herself here as having a certain integrity of self whereas Lila wears the clothes of another Role, has hair styled "like" that of a performer. . .
-- the threat from the Solaras (the shoe store might catch fire easily) in response to Lila's rejection of Marcello -- and, of course, the violent hierarchy the community lives under
-- the shocking revelation of Stefano's apparent betrayal
-- and finally, Nino's rejection of literature, his dismissal of the possibility of tilting against windmills in Naples, where such an act is "only wasted courage." And Nino's character in general. . . .
-- Lenù's recognition of her mother's contradictory nature, and her parallel recognition that she "was indissolubly welded" to her, "to her body, the alienness that was expanding inside me." Oddly, it's Lila's wedding that brings her this perception, her understanding that she has always looked to Lila to "learn how to escape my mother" and that now that Lila has chosen to remain "chained" to her mother's world, Lenù is left "completely alone"

Okay, that's it from me now. I was about to write that this completes my hosting of this ReadAlong of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, but of course it doesn't do that at all. Now I have the happy task of reading and responding to your comments. Of course, you're all neck-deep in Christmas and seasonal preparations as well, but I hope you will find time to leave a word or two at some point. And feel free to add comments to any of our previous conversations on earlier chapters.

Finally, a great big Thank You for all your contributions to this experiment of mine. I've enjoyed our collaboration very much.

Friday, December 2, 2016

ReadAlong post from Paris. . .

I hope you're not becoming too impatient with my posts pleading for your patience. I've obviously bitten off more than my traveling self can chew -- or write! -- with this ReadAlong (plus the whole idea of two blogs is a bit goofy, isn't it!)

This is our last day in Paris, though, and I'm grabbing a few minutes to write this while my husband finishes his coffee downstairs. I finished my rereading of Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend and scribbled a few notes in the margins as we rode the train here from Bordeaux (and I also spent some time reading Lauren Groff's Arcadia, which I've enjoyed and which has provoked some thinking, some reminiscing, but which I've also found a bit forced toward the end -- any of you read it?).

I'll do my best to write a wrap-up post on MBF when I'm settled back home, but I wanted to pop in here quickly just to make sure you've all seen my post (over on my other blog) on our quick visit to Naples. I'm still thinking about how much this accorded with and how much this changed my vision of Naples as Lenù/Elena knew it and I hope to write a bit more about that later.

I also wanted to say that of those last 30 or so short chapters, what truly surprised me in my rereading was realising that the title comes from something that Lila says of Lenù when the latter claims that she will be finished school at a certain point. Lila responds that Lenù can't stop because"you're my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls." In case you want to check out that passage, it's on page 312, if you have a print copy of the book; Chapter 57 if not. The paragraphs that follow are extraordinary as well -- note the distance, in them, of Elena's use of the distancing second-person pronoun to refer to her young self.

I must say that this discovery has me rethinking the series quite significantly. Let's discuss that, can we? I'll be checking in for comments regularly although it may take me a little while to write here again.