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.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Ferrante ReadAlong -- Turning Points?

Edited to add: Thanks so much to Lisa for linking to this post and welcome to any visitors from Amid Privilege's reading post. Although I've just written the last post in this Readalong, you're very welcome to join the conversation. Depending where you are in your own reading of My Brilliant Friend, you might want to begin with the first Readalong post here, and you can find the entire series by clicking on the "readalong" label at the bottom of this post. And just because the Readalong is posted now, please don't consider it "over" -- I look forward to any comments you wish to add.

First, thanks to Dottoressa (long-time reader and generous commentator here) for pointing me to this article on Ferrante's Naples by journalist Irene Casselli who grew up in that city. I suspect other readers might find it an interesting complement to My Brilliant Friend.  And stay tuned. . . I may be able to give an up-close-and-personal report on Naples myself before too long. . .

Next, to apologise (yet again) for the slow pace of this ReadAlong. If I'd thought the project through more carefully before attempting it, I might have realised how much it could be hampered by the reality of traveling. As it is, while too slow to be effective for many of you, especially if you're galloping through the novel your first time, the postings have provided a useful discipline for my second reading, and your comments have enriched my appreciation of the novel. Overall, the experiment has been worthwhile for me -- Perhaps you'll chime in and tell me what, if anything, has worked for you, and whether you think it might be worth attempting another ReadAlong next year.

And third, let's talk about Chapters 31 to 40 -- I think that I'm going to try to compress the last chapters of the book (from 41 through to the end) into one final post, so that I'm done before I head back home at the beginning of December. But these ten chapters ahead of me right now definitely demand a post of their own.

I have to admit, though, that it's tempting to skip past these chapters. Just as we've seen Elena blossom into another, happier version of herself at Ischia, away from the community that reflected back only a limited vision, some of that community intrudes and we see her stepping back into its tangled web.  Reading these chapters, knowing Elena's potential but seeing how much of her energy and her self-worth she stakes in Nino Sarratore returning her interest (obsession? adoration? surely it's not yet love as the Nino she sees is one she's constructed from dreams), I think as I have watching bright young teen girls, nieces, friends' daughters, my daughters -- She's only one bad boyfriend from becoming a doctor, or a writer, or a president. . . .

The revelation she shares with Lila about Donato Sarratore's inscription promiscuity should have dialled down Elena's propensity for romance, but again, she's 14! Soon, she's caught  between her fascination with Sarratore Senior (such an indulgent, engaging, fun father to his family, willing to include her in the good times) and his unappreciative, recalcitrant son, Nino, of the dark, handsome, silent allure... Especially knowing what will come later in this four-volume series (tetralogy is such an awkward word, no?), I couldn't help be particularly attentive to Lenù's efforts to engage and attract Nino. I also couldn't help trying to push past her adult self's controlled, reportorial tone to discern the feelings generated by her retrospective analysis.

Imagine if Lenù had been able to speak of both her infatuation, and of her frustration with its target, with someone who already had her adult self's experience with a certain type of man, one who wanted a woman to be audience, perhaps even muse, but not to occupy the speaker's role for long. What might any of us tell our younger selves, looking back now to some of the heartthrobs we imagined as soulmates, only to discover, slowly and often too late, their narcissism? How many of us recognised something when we read this passage: Since I wanted him to be aware of my intelligence I endeavored to interrupt him, to say what I thought, but it was difficult, he seemed content with my presence only if I was silently listening, which I quickly resigned myself to doing.  And see how quickly Lenù returned to her self-deprecation, sure that Nino said things that I could never have thought -- although she qualifies that claim (at the time? now, as the narrating adult?) by noting that at least she couldn't have said those things with the same assurance. . . in a strong, engaging Italian.

May I interrupt myself here to suggest that if this were a Book Club, and I were the host, perhaps I'd pop into the kitchen right now to grab a tray of goodies to go with the wine. While I'm gone, you might carry on the discussion. Possible topics: Nino's obvious (?) use of Lenù as a way to pursue an interest in Lila; Nino's indifference, in comparison to the other young men of Lenù's acquaintance, to other male interest in her and in Marisa; Nino's hatred of his father; Lenù's too-innocent admiration of Sarratore. . . 

Oh, and I'm back, just because I heard you speaking about the last topic, and I wanted to point out that young Lenù was astute enough, even in her innocence, to note that Sarratore Senior"never opened a book" despite being a published poet. But she kept silent out of fear that she might "spoil[] the great esteem he had for me. This silence, a dangerous habit cultivated early.

And -- spoiler alert! -- I have to point out Nino's manifesto, his oath that he "will devote [his] life. . . to trying not to resemble [his father]." Why do I call this a spoiler art? Well, let's just say that you may find this statement becomes retroactively ironic. . . .

In these ten chapters, however, most significant for me, especially on rereading, is what happens in Lenù's room, the assault by Donato Sarratore. The assault not only marks her forever, but it pushes her back to her community as the only escape possible, and as a place where Lila's drama demands all the spotlights while Lenù buries her own horrors under layers of silence and disgust with herself. So innocent that, as her 60-something self writes to us, "however unlikely it may seem today, as long as I could remember until that night I had never given myself pleasure, I didn't know about it, to feel it surprised me." And how honest of that adult self to write now, that she said and did nothing not only because she "was terrified by that behavior, by the horror it created" but also because of "the pleasure" she "nevertheless felt" -- which pleasure also engendered the terror.

So poignant to me that she thought, in the immediate aftermath, that she "finally had a story to tell that Lila could not match" although she immediately realises "that the disgust I felt for Sarratore and the revulsion that I had toward myself would keep me from saying anything." In fact, she writes, "this is the first time I've sought words for that unexpected end to my vacation." Note that even as she seeks words, she doesn't clearly name what happened, substituting "unexpected end to my vacation" for "sexual assault by a trusted and admired adult."

The five following chapters develop actions set in place already, with Lila seeming to manipulate the men who want to control her. Her machinations seem to have borne fruit by the end of Chapter 40, although there's clearly still a potential threat from the Solaras. But I, unfortunately, have a plane to catch later today, so I'll leave you to tease out some of the implications here or to debate the wisdom of Lila's strategy or the likelihood it will work out well for her. Or perhaps that seems less important to you than Elena's revelation, the lonely pain and shame of that secret, guarded for fifty-some years...

For the moment, though, please excuse me as I clear away the dishes, go pack up my suitcase. Feel free to finish your glass of wine, linger and chat among yourselves. We're old friends here at this Book Club, right, and my home/blog is yours. . . 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Recent Reading, Armchair Travel and Mystery Novels and Marriage . . .

I'm determined to post another Ferrante ReadAlong entry soon, but I've hardly been a monogamous reader -- and my travel status tends to encourage Vacation Reading. If the move into the year's darker days has you looking for comfortable armchair reading -- or if, in the southern hemisphere, you're looking for a book to enjoy in your hammock or on the beach, I've got a few titles that might satisfy:

For armchair travel, always a pleasure in my book (pun, ha! not intended!), you might enjoy Dianne Hales' La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language, particularly if you're interested in language-learning in general, in Italy and its language(s) in particular, and even more, if you find the history of a language fascinating, as I do. Hales' book wraps the history and culture of the Italian language up in a delightful memoir, although if you're looking for more personal anecdotes and fewer facts about opera or Italian literature, it might not be the travel memoir for you. But if you're looking for a fairly erudite, yet entertaining, visit to Italy with a sustained look at its history and culture, she throws in enough romance and gossip to make learning fun.

I know that many of you like to do your armchair-travelling via the mystery genre, and since we've already flown to Italy with Ms. Hales. . . . I borrowed Michael Dibdin's Vendetta from the bookshelves of the home we're renting in Bordeaux, and as soon as I was a chapter or two in, I wondered why I hadn't gobbled up all the Aurelio Zen mysteries back when I first came across them. I've read one or two, but I'm thinking now that I'll work my way through the backlist once I get home. The library is sure to have copies. Interesting, reading this title, first published in 1990, and noticing how quickly we've come to expect our fictional detectives to use a cellphone. Poor Aurelio gets himself into a situation which requires rescue, and he desperately needs a phone booth. . . That plot device wouldn't work anymore to generate tension, would it?
Zen is an intriguing character -- a bachelor at this point in the series, although that could change, he otherwise shares some traits with Donna Leon's Brunetti, and if he ever takes the train from Rome up to Venice, perhaps they might meet. I think they'd approve of each other.
I'd recommend this one, not only for the writing quality, the likeable character, and the entertaining plot, but also -- especially? -- because I loved walking the streets of Rome again with AZ.

And I still haven't made it to Venice, but I'm currently walking its streets with Commissario Brunetti, my hold on the series' seventh title, Noble Radiance, having come available at the Vancouver Public Library and technology miraculously delivering it to my iPad here in Bordeaux. Just getting started on this one. . .

Before that, my Hold on Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies worked its way to the top of the VPL list, and I downloaded and read that over several very pleasurable, lazy hours this past weekend.  I'm recommending this one quite highly -- it's engaging and entertaining at the level of what we used to consider bedside-table reading. But it's also very clever, flipping itself inside out at a certain point to reveal something very surprising about (a) marriage. And stylistically, it's a delight, full of surprises at so many levels, with brilliant imagery and sharp metaphors. Mostly, I love what it does to/with the notion of a conventional long-term marriage, lulling you into thinking one thing and then. . . But no, the second half of the book deserves to be approached without preconceptions. No spoilers. Let me know if you read it or if you've read it. This would be such a great Book Club choice -- I can imagine long, wine-fuelled discussions.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm heading back to Venice with a certain uxorious Commissioner (whom I've only just discovered has a beloved older brother). . . it's the only way I'm going to be able to ignore the loud growls from my tummy, being incited into howls by the kitchen fragrances of Pater's Boeuf Bourgignon, apparently not ready for another half hour . . .

Have you read any of these titles? Or could you recommend other related ones -- in the spirit of those bookstore signs that read "If you liked____________, you might also like____________"? Or perhaps just catch us up with what you've been reading since we last chatted.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Our Ferrante ReadAlong Continues, Chapters 21-30 of "Story of the Shoes"

It seems to me that in this section we start to see these adolescents, nearing adulthood,  beginning to sort out ways to exercise some agency, to try to make a difference, to change their communities and the systems that control them, even if they scarcely have any models for how they might do so. As Elena recounts Lila thinking, Stefano, for example, "wanted to try to get out of the before." It's a naïve hope, perhaps, but also a bold one, and it captures the imagination of the young crowd enough that they join in his plan for New Year's Eve of wanting to clear away the past.

Yet it's in the middle of this decisive move, this erasing of the acrimony between the Pelusos and the Caraccis (never mind that they only unite to strengthen their enmity against the Solaras!), that Elena sees that her potential boyfriends are all "waiting for their war of men" and don't even pay attention to Lila, never mind Lenù. And while one local prejudice might be overcome, Lenù links the fighting represented by the fireworks to long-past civil wars such as the ones "between Romulus and Remus, between Marius and Silla, between Caesar and Pompey." In other words, as much as Stefano might want to get out of the "before," the weight of history is not so easily lifted.

At a time when hormones are pushing the young women toward the young men, then, the young women are simultaneously seeing their childhood friends -- and for Lila, horrifyingly, her beloved brother Rino, in full testosterone-fueled combat. As "males whose bodies gave off a heat hotter than the fires in the sky."

And from the moment of this recognition on, Lila sinks into depression, and when she rallies, it's only to think of ways to make money, and that only for the sole goal of "fix[ing] Rino's head." Yet Rino's desire for money as a means to power and independence gets in the way, and he pushes against his father's own lifetime of frustated desire to the point of an explosion in the family which Lila can't find any way out of other than apparently accepting a traditional domestic role for the time being.

Yet she's certainly not ready to accept the traditional female role of wife, which she's apparently approaching even at the early age of 14, and she turns down Pasquale's attentions and then, shockingly, Marcello's. Elena, the adult writer, admits that she "felt a pang" on learning this, on seeing that Lila had become, in her teen-aged eyes, a "woman capable of making anyone bend to her will." The adult Elena has also just described Lila's inability to change her father's mind about the shoes, however, so we should keep in mind that fourteen-year-olds don't always see the world as it is.

Lenù does see the danger in Lila's insult to Marcello, however, especially when she finds that Lila, who never gossips, has told everyone about refusing Marcello's proposal.  And I would say that the next several chapters make it very clear how far Lila is from being able to make anyone bend to her will. Neither she nor any of the other girls are able to stop the horrifying fight that ensues when the group of friends on a Saturday night passeggiata in town, where they encounter young people who seem "absolutely different from us," so different that Lenù and Lila's group is not even "perceptible" -- a "humiliaating difference."

In the moment of that fight's beginning, Lila wears "an expression of disbelief, as if a thousand fragments of our life. . . were composing an image that was finally clear," and the fight culminates with the Solara brothers' help which is, albeit saving their friends from certain harm, a terrifying help marked by "a cold ferocity that [Elena] hope[s] never to see again in my life" -- and note, she's saying this in her 60s, not as a naīvely shocked young woman. Still, at the time, Lenù is not as attuned to the potential dangers as Lila is, but Lila has more reason to be so attuned -- Marcello Solara, she begins to realise, is not going to be so easy to refuse. If you're planning to go on (and honestly, how will you resist after this 1st volume?!) you might pay careful attention here, because so much of the series is built around Lila's determination to refuse this man and his (and his family's) determination to have her.

Meanwhile, however, as Lila worries that there might be "something wrong with me" because "I make people do the wrong thing" -- and how deeply entrenched is that notion in so many cultures, in Christianity certainly, and before that Judaism, Eve being forever blamed for tempting poor hapless Adam -- Lenù is torn between her responsibilities to her friend and her justified excitement about spending a few weeks at the seaside.

Surely we're not going to begrudge her that, even if she reproaches herself for it. As I continue to repeat, she's only 14! And although she doesn't realise it yet, her taking this step out of the community is at least as significant a step toward erasing some of the "before" -- and certainly a more effective one, in the long run -- as is Stefano's fireworks party. Maestra Oliviero, as the single educated woman in the community, battling as best she can to pull at least one of her young female charges out of their poverty, has a big emotional investment in pushing Lenù toward the seaside, toward a vision of a new life Beyond. But so does Elena's mother, apparently, and while we might have expected more resistance from the family, she even makes her daughter a bathing suit.

I suspect some of you will disagree with me and think that Lenù could somehow have been a better friend, have stayed home to support Lila in refusing Marcello's proposal. I can only feel sympathy that a young woman who has worked so hard for another possibility in life should have to feel so divided, so guilty, over accepting such a huge opportunity.

Already, it's clear that she's feeling such division over her ties to her mother and to her teacher. The latter strikes Lenù as acting in loco parentis even as her "real" mother the "one with the injured leg and the wandering eye" is right there but treated as if she "were only a disposable living being and as such not to be taken into consideration."  Interesting how closely this perception echoes Lenù's awareness that the young people in the piazza in Naples treat her group as "not perceptible" or "not interesting." In the last paragraphs of Chapter 29, Elena, narrating, seems to recognise her mother's care for her -- she doesn't call it "love" but she notes that her mother is fearful for her, and even asks an old sailor to watch out for her during the crossing.

Still, Elena remembers so many years later, even as she's aware of her mother's concern for her, she is happy -- if terrified also -- to be "leaving home. . . by sea [such that] The large body of my mother--along with the neighbourhood, and Lila's troubles--grew distant, and vanished."

And just as Elena has noted earlier when her group of friends go into town that it "was like crossing a border," we see that she's crossed a border here as well. She begins Chapter 30 with a simple, two-word sentence, "I blossomed." Honestly, I love this chapter, the openness we see being introduced into Elena's life. I can imagine what it would have taken for her to go the beach alone, to wear a swimsuit in public for the first time after an upbringing such as hers, the courage it would have taken to wade out to her depth in the sea --- and then her recognition that she can swim already, her recovered vision of her mother's early care. I'm not sure she could ever have been able to see her mother that way without the necessary distance the seaside gave her.

And her awareness, as our narrating senior, that she learned here, for the first time a pleasure that was often repeated throughout her life, "the joy of the new."

And her lack of homesickness, except for missing Lila. Her fear that her own life's "intensity and importance" was dependent on, or linked to, Lila's presence in her life. I don't, as some of you seem to, find her parasitic in this fear. Rather, I'm aware of the isolation a young woman had to suffer at that time and place to move beyond it. She shouldn't have had to choose, but there's little question of her fate if she hadn't, and we would have had no story, I suspect, as she would have been absorbed into the community, another woman bitterly raising a houseful of children, resenting her husband while completely dependent on him.

And one more paragraph beginning with a conjunction, if you don't mind. . . . When I was in Berlin, I kept seeing the word "Kunst," and trying to remember what it meant. "Art," it finally came to me, and immediately on its heels, the word "kunstlerroman." This last word denotes a literary genre that might be summed up by James Joyce's title "The portrait of the artist as a young man." A more particular form of the bildungsroman, a kunstlerroman is a novel which tells of the growth of an artist (until the last half of the 20th century, almost exclusively male) to maturity. As soon as I clicked from remembering that Kunst meant Art to thinking of the kunstlerrroman, it was only another quick brain-click to begin thinking about Ferrante's Neapolitan series as an example of this genre.

After all, we began the novel with a recognition that Elena wields the power of the pen, and we know that the girls have both dreamt of becoming writers. I won't tell you too much of what happens in the subsequent volumes, but you might imagine that Elena's commitment is eventually rewarded. I'm going to suggest that thinking about the series this way might encourage us to think about whether we would expect a developing young male artist to turn away from his drive to education and art/writing to attend to a friend. Pretty clearly, there have been many such writers and artists and musicians and actors throughout the centuries whose horrid social behaviour we excuse because of their talent. But from her earliest awareness, even Elena herself has judged her achievements against her social behaviour and too often found herself wanting.

I'll stop here, and continue next post with chapters 31-40 -- and we'll be able to discuss the "bombshell" that her landlady inadvertently drops at the end of Chapter 30. . .  For now, I welcome your comments about chapters 21-30 -- and don't feel I'm going to be such an apologist for Elena that I don't want to hear your objections to my reading. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Reading Enroute -- Trains, Planes, and Hotel Rooms . . .

Settled in Bordeaux now, and I'm hoping to get back to a more regular blogging practice, but we'll see... I've read the next ten chapters of Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend for our ReadAlong, and I'm putting that post together, but I thought you might like to know what else I've been reading on trains and planes.

Before I left Vancouver, I'd hurried through a big fat book I'd been looking forward to, Annie Proulx's Barkskins, Honestly, I wanted to love this (because, Annie Proulx) but I found it simply too obviously tendentious. Indeed, occasionally I would read some interesting anecdote about one of the many characters parading down the centuries of this historical survey of America's capitalist exploitation of its forests and wonder why the writer had bothered. The characters were so obviously working to convey a message to the reader that any attempt to flesh them out a bit more seemed wasted.  Such a brilliant writer and there were numerous passages that exemplified that, but there was also heavy-handed delivery of information to readers that made me despair about the value of fiction.
Dissenting opinions? I'd love to hear them, but you'll have a tough job convincing me. . .

Also, in the last few weeks before I left, I was trying to finish Elena Ferrante's La Figlia Oscura, which I'd optimistically taken out of the library - in Italian! the English translation out with some other borrower at the time. I only managed about 40 pages of this (in Italian) before I had to return it to the library after I'd exhausted the three renewal periods allowed -- painstaking translation, so slow and with so much recourse to Google translator for words I don't know, but still, satisfying. Interesting for me to see how similar the tone is to that of Ferrante's narrator in My Brilliant Friend, and there are some sentences/paragraphs that the latter novel repeats very closely -- the mother, for example, who wants to impress on her daughter a fear of the sea; the narrating mother who feels immensely liberated from her young-adult daughters' extended absence after their move to the US.

I also had to return Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost to the library before I was done with it, but what I read was enough to reset some of my attitudes to traveling. Or better, perhaps, it reinforced attitudes I'd allowed to drop back into latency.  A must-read, though, that already has inspired me to think about relinquishing the tight hold on my iPhone and the access to Google maps, getting lost in moderate ways, at least, not just in travel, but perhaps in more of life as well. Much food for thought, and I'll definitely return to this one.

Then for the plane, and for those nights back in the hotel room in Rome, on my own, a couple of good mystery novels: You might remember that I'm still lucky enough to be working my way through Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti mysteries, learning about Venice as I do, planning to visit someday.  The latest title for me was Fatal Remedies which further develops the rich relationship between Brunetti and his academic, feminist, firebrand of a wife. No complacency in their marriage, but love and much keeping each other on their toes. In this volume, she makes him furious, but by the end, they come around to see each other's point of view. So many mystery novels present detectives unable to sustain relationships; it's intriguing to consider the possibility it might be otherwise.

But  Jussi Adler-Olsen's Detective Carl Morck is one who doesn't do so well with personal relationships.  A Conspiracy of Faith is the 3rd in the Scandinavian Department Q mysteries, and while the serial killer phenomenon might be getting tired, overdone, to many, farfetched even -- and I don't mean Adler-Olsen's, particularly, but the concept in general -- the character development is strong here. This is particularly so between Morck and his mysterious Syrian assistant Assad, but also with the, er, erratic clerical/administrative staff in the department.  Apparently, three novels in this series have been made into film. Has anyone seen these? (I should add that if you're looking for a "cosy," these are not your mystery novels. Plenty of graphic violence, some gruesome, some grotesque, but this is oddly mixed with the comic. Dark humour abounds.

After sinking into the weird escape that mystery novels are for me (I can't understand why I would want to escape to such a universe, but perhaps the satisfaction of puzzles being solved?), I generally try to redeem myself by reading something more "worthwhile," something with more substantive content. This time, I turned to a memoir recommended by a friend which I was thrilled to find available as an e-book through the Vancouver Public Library -- even better, I was allowed to access the book despite being out of the country. Yes, there is the downside that I won't have my own copy of a book I suspect I'll want to go back to, but the ease of downloading -- for free! -- such high-quality reading while travelling is an absolute boon.
Okay, then, who's the author? what's the title?  Susan Faludi's In the Darkroom. So good, this memoir of Pulitzer prize-winning journalist/feminist Faludi about her rapprochement, as she moves into her middle years, with her father after his astonishing transition, via surgery at an advanced age to Stefanie, a woman (he fakes documentation to be able to do this -- in fact, as the memoir details, his life is marked, perhaps even directed, by his skill at faking),. Almost as astonishing is that after having survived the Holocaust as a Budapest Jew (and, by the way, having rescued his parents by impersonating a Nazi soldier -- at barely 18!!), her father chooses to live his last several decades there. So much about this memoir that illuminates so many dark corners -- the ugly persistence of anti-Semitism in Hungary; the strange struggle between Hungarian nationality and Jewish identity in her father; the troubled history of sex-change operations and the Trans community's historical struggle with strict gender binaries, its worrisome (for Faludi) understanding of what it means to be a woman. Fascinating, fascinating memoir -- highly recommended! I could write so much more about this book, and if you're in a book club, it would fuel a marvelous discussion. Seriously, grab this one! (and if you don't believe me, or you'd like a longer review that my quick-and-dirty, read this

And then I turned back to the mystery genre. Well, how could I resist? The VPL emailed to tell me a book I'd put a Hold on was now available: Carol O'Connell, Blind Sight, the just-released latest title in a series I love.  If you don't know this series featuring Kathleen Mallory, a New York detective with a traumatic childhood and an arguably sociopathic personality, you're in for a treat.  Not too much is added here to our knowledge of Mallory, except that we see glimpses of rare empathy, with children not surprisingly. And there's a young blind boy in a predicament which, if you're old enough, might recall Audrey Hepburn's role in Wait Until Dark. Amped up exponentially by the age factor! You'll see. . .

So there you have it. What I've been reading while I wasn't re-reading and posting about Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend. What about you? Especially if you're a reader who's felt excluded by my current focus on the ReadAlong, here's a chance to chime in and tell us what books are stacked by your nightstand (or on your desk or on your kitchen table or in your purse, or perhaps all of the above!).  And if you've been ReadingAlong with us, but cheating on the side, you can 'fess up now as well. And I'll get back to Ferrante next post.