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Literary Wives: Ties

It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!

Please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read Ties by Domenico Starnone! There are definitely spoilers ahead.

Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink

The Book

ties

In 1974, Aldo and Vanda have been married for twelve years and have two children. It is also when Aldo walks out and lives with another, younger, woman in Rome, leaving Vanda to care for their children in Naples. Eventually they reconcile and are living together in Rome when they are both in their 70s. But their marriage has never quite recovered from that time – Aldo does whatever Vanda wants so as not to upset her and Vanda is especially mean to him hoping to drive him away again.

After they go on vacation to the beach for a week, they return to find their apartment has been trashed. Nothing has been stolen but their furniture is destroyed, papers pulled out and thrown everywhere, all their secrets thrown around for anyone to see. It is while they attempt to restore order to their home that they think back over the life they have lived, at the decisions that have brought them to this moment.

My Thoughts

I really liked this little book!

I liked the structure of the book – part one is letters that Vanda writes to Aldo, railing at him for leaving their marriage, about the consequences of his leaving on his relationships with their children, how they are trying to build a life without him. The second section is present-day Aldo, being tricked by scammers, sorting through all his papers in his study after the burglary, thinking about his life all those years ago and what made him leave his marriage and ultimately what made him come back.

I liked the way the book ended. How Starnone takes a step back so that the reader is able to see the whole picture instead of just parts of it. I appreciated that nothing was left to inference for a change. I also appreciated that all parties were flawed – Aldo for his infideltiy, Vanda for spending a lifetime punishing her husband in the hopes that he’ll leave again while being completely miserable herself, their kids for the way their memories are warped with time, how they’ve used their parents’ misery as an excuse for their own.

Domenico Starnone is an Italian writer (and rumoured husband of Elena Ferrante) and Ties was translated by Jhumpa Lahiri (have you read her memoir about learning Italian? I really enjoyed it). In the introduction she talks a lot about the work of translation and how she had read the book many times before she did the translation (at Starnone’s request). I can’t help but think that this book is a different reading experience for someone like me who has been married for just about five years, versus someone married for 20 or 30 or someone who has experience being separated or divorced.

What does the book say about being a wife?

Ties has a fairly traditional view about being a wife – not surprising given when and where it is set. Vanda tells Aldo that she was a good wife:

Two pregnancies had barely altered me. I was an efficient wife and mother.  But evidently being almost identical to the time we’d met and fallen in love wasn’t enough, to the contrary – maybe that was the mistake; what I had to do was reinvent myself, be more than just a good wife and mother. So I tried to look like the one at the camp, and like the girls that no doubt hovered around you in Rome, and I made an effort to participate more in your life outside the house.

But still, Aldo left. So when he returns, she decides that things will be different, the marriage will go ahead on her terms.

You’d shown me in every possible way that you loved Lidia as you’d never loved me. I knew by then that if a man loves another woman he never returns to his wife for love. And so I told myself: Let’s see how long he can stand it before he tuns back to her. But the more I tormented you the more you caved. […] Years, decades have gone by playing this game and we’ve made a habit of it: living in disaster, reveling in disgrace, this was our glue.

Vanda’s identity when she was 22 was very much in becoming a wife. But once her husband betrays their vows, she won’t allow herself to be taken in again. She spends the rest of their years together punishing him and he continues to betray their vows. Despite their decision to stay together, they never move past those years when they were apart.

Be sure to visit the other blogs and get in on the discussion! Join us in October when we read Happenstance by Carol Shields.

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2

Peak storytelling: The Nickel Boys

The first thing that struck me about Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, was the beautiful simplicity of the cover. A large red square with a white border and two young Black men standing at the edge of the red – it is ART.

The second thing that struck me about this book was that it was released in July when it’s likely to be a heavy hitter come awards season. It is surprising to me that a book with this much publishing heft behind it wasn’t held for October.

Lucky for us that we get to read this so much sooner.

You have to be ready for this book though. It will destroy you.

The Nickel Boys is based on the real-life reform school in Florida that operated for 111 years, devastating the lives of thousands of children.

the nickel boys

Elwood Curtis is college-bound. Living with his grandmother in the Black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood has big dreams for himself. Listening to the speeches of Dr Martin Luther King, he takes the idea that he is as good as anyone else to heart. One bad decision, an innocent mistake, and he is sentenced to time at the Nickel Academy, a reform school that will provide the intellectual and moral training their delinquent charges lack.

In reality, the ‘school’ is a chamber of horrors that sexually and physically abuses the children in its care (I cannot stress enough that the students were CHILDREN). Elwood figures if he keeps his head down and ‘does his time’, he can get out of there and move on with his life relatively quickly. But seeing only the good in the world is next to impossible in a place like the Nickel Academy and alongside his friend Turner, Elwood has to make some difficult decisions to survive.

Colson Whitehead is a master storyteller at the peak of his craft. Every page, every paragraph, every word has been chosen to cause maximum damage to his reader. Whitehead spares none of us with this story. The abuse depicted is so casual, you almost miss it! You almost miss heinous descriptions of abuse because Whitehead wants you to understand the everyday reality faced by these kids. It was just a part of their day-to-day! I think that by doing it this way, he makes The Nickel Boys palatable to a wider audience. You can’t dismiss this one as too graphic to read. And this story needs to be read, it’s important.

The Nickel Boys is a marvel of storytelling from beginning to end. When I got to end, when I realized how all the pieces fit together to form a DEVASTATING conclusion, I sobbed. Straight up sobbed. It’s the kind of book that knocked the breath right out of me.

I can see this book as a movie or a mini-series. It has HBO or Oscar-bait written all over it should that happen. It’s the story from a dark chapter in American history, told by one of America’s best story-tellers. If you haven’t read it already, I cannot stress enough that you need to.

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for honest reviews.

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Review: Star-Crossed

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

We are smack dab in the middle of summer and I hope you have found some solid summer reading picks for your beach bags!

Or for cramming in your bag to sneak in a park near your office, whatever works for you this time of year. I’m definitely not getting my reading done near a body of water but I am using naptimes to sit quietly on the front porch (deck? Balcony? I’m never sure) and read outside.

One of the books that I have loved this summer is Minnie Darke’s Star-Crossed.

From Goodreads:

When childhood sweethearts Justine (Sagittarius and serious skeptic) and Nick (Aquarius and true believer) bump into each other as adults, a life-changing love affair seems inevitable. To Justine, anyway. Especially when she learns Nick is an astrological devotee, whose decisions are guided by the stars, and more specifically, by the horoscopes in his favorite magazine. The same magazine Justine happens to write for. As Nick continues to not fall headlong in love with her, Justine decides to take Nick’s horoscope, and Fate itself, into her own hands. But, of course, Nick is not the only Aquarius making important life choices according to what is written in the stars.

star crossed

This was a bubbly, fun, clever, joyful read for me. I am a Pisces and fully buy into astrology (and tarot cards and mediums and anything else that connects us to the other side and/or fate) and this book really allowed me to lean into that. The book is structured around the signs of the zodiac, following Justine and Nick over the course of a full calendar year, starting in Aquarius. I cannot even fathom the level of expertise that Darke possesses when it comes to the stars!

While we follow Justine and Nick as their paths cross and Justine decides to help out fate a little, we also get glimpses into the lives of other horoscope readers, making decisions based on Justine’s ‘predictions.’ If you’re a Capricorn, you probably think the entire premise of this book is ridiculous. But I guarantee that the Libras and Cancers reading this feel like Star-Crossed is speaking to them. This book made me want to go out and learn everything about astrology! And I’m already that person that goes “oh my god are you a ____?”

I’m loving that romantic comedy is having a bit of a revival in books. Star-Crossed is absolutely a part of the movement and I thoroughly enjoyed every page. I’m honestly thinking about giving this one a re-read at some point.

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#15BooksofSummer – Update

Bet you all thought I had given up on the #15BooksofSummer Challenge Cathy @ 746 Books has been hosting.

(The idea is that you make a list of 10, 15, or 20 books from your TBR, you read them between June 3 and September 3, and then you post about them. A bit of focus for the summer months and a nice way to clear off some of those books that always seem to get overlooked)

But I haven’t! I’ve been trying really hard to make sure that the books get read. Posting about them however…given the choice between using nap-time (sacred, sacred time) for reading or for writing content…this lazy mom chooses reading.

I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction tear and gravitated towards the non-fiction picks on my list. Looking at the books I wanted to mention, they are all non-fiction so I guess I do have a theme today. I also really liked all of them.

mightnight

First up: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. Am I the only one that I didn’t realize that this was non-fiction? In May of 1981, antiques dealer Jim Williams shot and killed Danny Hansford, a local male prostitute. Over the next decade, there are four different trials and everyone in Savannah has an opinion on what happened.

I love true crime but this is probably one of the least interesting crimes I’ve read about. What makes this book such a compelling read is the cast of characters that the author socializes with during his time in Savannah. He has a front row seat to all the drama and introduces readers to the most incredible people: The Lady Chablis, a local transgender woman and entertainer, the folk magic practitioner Minerva, fighting with her husband, Dr. Buzzard, from beyond the grave, the guy who walks around with a small bottle of poison that could supposedly kill the entire city if he dropped it in the water supply, Williams’ lawyer, the keeper of the University of Georgia’s bulldog mascot, Uga.

Along with the people, Berendt manages to create an incredible sense of place. 1980s Savannah comes to life. It is, however, very much a product of it’s time. Berendt tells a privileged story from a position of privilege and it shows, despite the fact that at least half of the people involved in the story were actually quite poor.

After I finished the book, I watched the movie directed by Clint Eastwood. That’s probably where I got the idea that this book was fiction. The whole time my husband and I were watching it, I very helpfully explained to him what the actual story was.

les parisiennes

I’d put off reading Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba because I rightly assumed that it would be a tough read. Les Parisiennes tells stories of the women in Paris during WWII, those who collaborated, the ones who were a part of the Resistance, those who were deported to concentration camps for being Jewish.

It is a really wide picture of what it was like to be a woman in Paris during the War, how the ‘choices’ one made were hardly choices. What choice is there between your child or your husband, feeding your family or spitting at a Nazi, living or dying? Sebba does a really good job at reminding readers that the things these women did weren’t so much choices, as they were the things that had to be done.

After the war, France (and a number of other countries including the Netherlands) liked to position their citizenry as all having been a part of the Resistance but that wasn’t actually true at all. There was also a marked difference between how those women returning from a place like Ravensbruck for Resistance work and those who returned from Auschwitz for being Jewish, were treated. And a few years after the war, people started to express that they were tired of hearing about it, how it was time to move on. For so many of these women, moving on wasn’t really possible.

Reading Les Parisiennes reminded me a bit of Caroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter. But it was more difficult to keep track of everyone’s story in Les Parisiennes. Still, I found it to be a thoroughly researched picture of an unspeakable time.

21 things

Finally we come to the book that affected me the most: 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act by Bob Josephs. Reading about Indigenous Peoples in Canada has always been something I’ve shied away from, likely because I knew it would shatter the ideal we hold that racism isn’t an issue here. But in the last couple of years I’ve tried to educate myself.

This book is based on a viral blog post that Josephs wrote. Josephs is actually a culture sensitivity trainer, working with companies to better understand Indigenous culture and history. The book covers things that you probably knew (it created reserves, forbade students from speaking their Indigenous languages, denied women status) and a LOT that you probably didn’t.

I obviously knew that the Indian Act was a travesty, stripping peoples of their culture, language and identity as resource-rich land was taken over by the Canadian government. But I didn’t know how far-reaching it actually was. I didn’t know that the Act created the band system, overriding traditional means of government that had worked for generations; that they were forbidden from appearing in traditional dress and performing dances or even just appearing at exhibitions or events; that it declared the potlatch illegal; that it renamed people with European names; or that it made it so that Indigenous peoples were unable to sell the produce from the farms they were forced to work.

I didn’t know that the Indian Act still exists.

And even allowing for the times in which he lived, John A. MacDonald (Canada’s first Prime Minister) was incredibly racist and I seriously don’t know why he’s still on our currency (he got bumped off the $10 but he’s being moved to the $100 – so long, Borden).

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, released it’s report and made 94 recommendations in order for Canadians to address the cultural genocide perpetrated by the Canadian government. Bob Josephs has included all of them in this book and I found it incredibly helpful, not only to have that as a resource, but also to have a way forward. It is 100% my responsibility to help work towards Reconciliation and now I have some concrete ideas for how I can do that.

Seriously, this book blew my mind. I’m still thinking about it weeks later and I want to press a copy into the hands of everyone I know.

So that’s it for the update for now – I’m about to finish A Gentleman in Moscow and then I will have read…7 of 15. Which is better than I thought and also really validates my decision not to pick 20!

5

More than just another thriller: A Good Enough Mother

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

You know how sometimes a book is marketed a certain way and then you read it and you come away going “huh, that’s not what I thought it would be”?

That’s what happened for me with A Good Enough Mother by Bev Thomas.

From Goodreads:

good enough

Ruth Hartland is a psychotherapist with years of experience. But professional skill is no guard against private grief. The mother of grown twins, she is haunted by the fact that her beautiful, difficult, fragile son Tom, a boy who never “fit in,” disappeared a year and a half earlier. She cannot give up hope of finding him, but feels she is living a kind of half-life, waiting for him to return.

Enter a new patient, Dan–unstable and traumatized–who looks exactly like her missing son. She is determined to help him, but soon, her own complicated feelings, about how she has failed her own boy, cloud her professional judgement. And before long, the unthinkable becomes a shattering reality….

Paula Hawkins (whose marketing team is definitely Patient Zero for the whole ‘Girl’ phenomenon) blurbs the book. Everything about it screams psychological thriller. Maybe a touch of domestic noir. I thought I was in for something like The Woman in the Window, maybe something like The Widow by Fiona Barton.

Instead, A Good Enough Mother is more a meditation on loss, on motherhood, on the ways that women make room for children and a career, on the thousand ways that that works and doesn’t work. Ruth loses her son and spends her days going over all the different ways that she could go back and undo that loss. She shoulders the blame from a lifetime of being the one in her marriage to try and make room for both her family and her career.

I liked the thriller subplot to this one – I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what Dan’s deal was and that plot’s ending was pretty devastating. But I thought the book’s strength was that it was so much more than a thriller and I wish that it had been marketed as more than just that book that will keep you up at night racing through pages.

I suspect that A Good Enough Mother will be passed over by a lot of readers who think they have already read this book many times over and that’s a shame. It deserves better.

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Review: Normal People

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Readers love Sally Rooney. She is a young Irish writer whose debut novel, Conversations With Friends, seemed to set the literary world on fire. It was nominated 2018 Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize, and the 2018 Folio Prize

Her second novel, Normal People (which at this point is decidedly less new as I took my sweet time actually putting a post up after we already had to wait an extra year to get it in Canada) was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2018, was named Irish Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards, Waterstone’s Book of the Year 2018, and it won the Costa Book Award for the Novel category. It was long-listed for the 2019 Dylan Thomas Prize and the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Basically Sally Rooney is a literary heavy hitter.

You know where I’m going with this don’t you?

Normal People wasn’t really my jam.

normal people

It’s about these two teenagers, Connell and Marianne, who are from the same kind of crappy Irish town. Marianne is from a wealthy, super dysfunctional family and Connell is the son of their house cleaner. He’s super popular, a student athlete, she has no friends and is incredibly private. They form an unlikely friendship which becomes romantic and they have sex every chance they get over the course of their last year of school. A year later and they are both at Trinity in Dublin and their paths cross again. The novel checks in on them periodically as they continue to grow and change but ultimately find their way back to each other.

Initially I liked the prose. It’s obvious that Rooney can write. She’s able to do a lot in few words. While this impressed me, it also held me at a bit of a distance – I never got to the point where I cared about either Connell or Marianne. I did get kind of darker One Day vibes but unfortunately I loved the movie more than the book (cardinal sin).

And while I appreciated that the ending was a bit open – there are infinite ways the reader can imagine their story ending – I just didn’t care about what happened to either of them. Normal People was missing the kind of pathos I’ve come to expect from a book by an Irish writer. Ultimately, when Connell and Marianne are together, they will always revert to the people they were back in their hometown. When I finished reading this, I couldn’t help but feel that the whole thing, their relationship, their push and pull through life, was about sex. Their early romantic relationship was so all consuming that it suffocated any chance of developing into more.

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#15BooksofSummer – Books 1 and 2

For someone who has pledged to read a certain number of books already in her possession, I sure spent a lot of time picking out more books at the library this week…

That said, I have made progress on my 15 (or 20 or 10) Books of Summer project as hosted by Cathy @ 746 Books. The idea is to choose X number of books to read between June 3rd and September 3rd and then review those you read. You can find my list here.

Last week I started the project for real by reading Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. From Goodreads:

In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through.

exit west

The first half of the book looks at how they meet and what their lives look like in their country. The second half takes place after they have stepped through the door, what happens as they try and build a new life, the other refugees they meet who have no status in the new countries they inhabit.

I didn’t expect the magical realism part of the novel, which goes to show how much I read about this book ahead of time. Apparently not even the inside cover…Magical realism is rarely my jam but I didn’t mind it in this case. I thought the doors was a clever way to look at immigration and refugees, the reaction of those countries that take in those that flee their homelands and the experiences of those who leave their homes. The story became much more about Saeed and Nadia’s relationship because Hamid has managed to find a way to remove a lot of the process of getting to another country.

And while beautifully written, as a novel Exit West felt like a stretch. Once the aim of leaving their unnamed home has been achieved, the story faltered for me. As a short story I think it could have packed quite the punch but as a “full length” novel (is 231 pages a full length novel?) it seemed to limp through the final third of the book.

But still, I finished it!

tender

Which is more than can be said for my next attempt, Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Years ago I read Villa America by Liza Klaussmann which purported to tell the story of Fitzgerald’s friends Sara and Gerald who Tender is the Night is based on. It made me more curious to read this novel and I thought that this project would give me the impetus to finally do that.

However, 73 pages is as far as I made it. In all that time I had no idea what was even happening. I couldn’t keep the characters straight, my mind kept wandering off and I had to keep reminding myself that the story takes place in 1920, not 1934 when it was published.

Like I said, I went to the library this week so there are other books that have been tempting me and I couldn’t see the point in slogging through another book by a Dead White Guy.

But at least Tender is the Night has migrated out of my TBR cabinet.

Are you doing this challenge this summer? How are you doing so far?