1

The Neapolitan Novels

Everyone kept talking about Elena Ferrante and the Neapolitan books and how they were so good and I had to read them.

I caved and read My Brilliant Friend, book one, over Christmas 2015. It was fine but I wasn’t obsessed like everyone said I would be.

I’ve just finished book three, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and I just want to go on record as saying, these books are so good and you really do need to read them.

neapolitan

Maybe it was that in the first book, frenemies (are we still allowed to use this word?) Elena and Lila are still children and it takes a while for them to grow up. Their childhood slights and troubles didn’t make as big an impact on me, but I did enjoy life in their Naples neighbourhood.

But it is essential to know Lila and Elena as children, to understand their dynamic, the competition they felt with each other, where they grew up, to appreciate how their relationship ebbs and flows through the other books.

After books two (The Story of a New Name) and three, I am stunned at how Ferrante has been able to write about the complications of female friendship. Lila, who wasn’t able to continue going to school after Grade 5, has been married to an abusive man, left to work in a factory where the working conditions were pretty miserable until someone from the neighbourhood offers her an opportunity she can’t refuse. Elena, who has continued to study throughout university, has published a novel, married a professor and moved all the way to Florence. There she finds that she’s not terribly happy despite having everything she thought she wanted.

Through all the changes in their lives, there continues to be a magnetic pull between the two women. There is no one who knows you as well as those friends from childhood, especially when you remain in each other’s lives. But those relationships become complicated by the person you want to become, the new ways you see the world, the people you meet that aren’t from the same place as you. It can become difficult to maintain the level of intimacy you had from childhood.

This is the essence of Elena Ferrante’s incredible books. They ruminate on the internal lives of women, the struggle to be seen as a separate entity from wife or mother, to have things for ourselves outside those roles, how our relationships with other women change over time. All of this against the political changes of Italy from the 1950s forward.

These books are brilliant. They continue to gather more fans, to have more people talk about them because they are wonderful. If your only exposure to these books is the whole “who is Elena Ferrante?” business, you need to get to a bookstore/library and sort your life out.

Still plenty of time until it becomes an HBO produced series. 

I am desperate to read book four, The Story of the Lost Child, but I also don’t want to finish the series.

1

Canada Reads 2017: The Right To Be Cold

When the Canada Reads shortlist was announced this year, it struck me (and many others) as odd that there was a non-fiction selection among them. How can the merits of a non-fiction selection be weighed alongside fiction?

Nonetheless, the non-fiction title (The Right To Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, The Arctic and the Whole Planet) was one of only two titles that I even wanted to read. (The other was Katherena Vermette’s The Break and I don’t even want to talk about how that book was treated during the debates. READ IT)

right to be cold

Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right To Be Cold is part memoir, part manifesto. The first half of the memoir, about her life growing up in the Arctic and the traditions of her Inuit culture, I loved. Her home, her traditions, her culture, her language, her family – all were written about with such love while pointing out that their way of life was being threatened by the warming of the Earth.

She writes quite plainly:

The Arctic ice and snow, the frozen terrain that Inuit life has depended on for millennia, is now diminishing in front of our eyes.

We are all accustomed to the dire metaphors used to evoke the havoc of climate change, but in many parts of the Arctic, the metaphors have already become a very literal reality. For a number of reasons, the planet warms several times faster at the poles. While climate experts warn that an increase of two degrees in the global average temperature is the threshold of disaster, in the Arctic we have already seen nearly double that.

Part of the issue, of course, is that those sounding the alarm are not the “right” kind of people. They are those citizens that have been taken advantage of, that have been robbed of their culture, forced into educational institutions that separated them from their families and did their own kind of damage. Although not the focus of the book, Watt-Cloutier does touch on this aspect of it. Those citizens that have been suppressed and abused are now charged with righting the wrongs of the rest of us.

And so, as her people’s way of life became threatened, as new generations were being robbed of the necessary environment to practice essential skills, as the habitats of animals necessary to sustain life in the Arctic became increasingly endangered, Watt-Cloutier saw that she would need to take a stand.

And that leads to the manifesto/memoir overlap of the book that kind of lost me. Undoubtedly her work is so very important and fundamental to the future of her people and the entire planet. But in writing about it, she relies on the retelling of political process, of the meetings she had, speeches she heard and gave, of those she met whose minds she changed.

It was all so dry.

Which is a shame because I do think that this is an important book for people to read, to understand just how precarious our situation is when it comes to climate change. It has already had very real implications for people right now.

I so appreciate Sheila Watt-Cloutier and the work she has done. I just wish that she had been able to leave out the process and focus on what needs to happen. Or spend more time on shocking people into that state of things as they are, and how much damage we have already done.

Canada Reads has come and gone by now and though I still think it was weird to add a non-fiction book to the party, there’s enough in The Right To Be Cold to make it worth your while. We can’t really afford to pretend this isn’t a serious problem.

6

Swede Lit Win: Britt-Marie Was Here

At the beginning of the month, the chaos of my life started bleeding into my reading. I wasn’t able to focus on reading for any length of time. I went days without reading any pages at all!

Finally, Fredrik Backman rescued me.

We all know that I loved A Man Called Ove and tried to force a number of you to read it. I also fell in love with My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologizes. I was hopeful for more of the same for Britt-Marie Was Here but also, how can a third book possibly hold up?

Oh it did!

britt1

The cover I have

Britt-Marie was one of the characters from My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologizes. She was the one that Elsa’s grandmother tormented by shooting a paintball gun at her or pretending to hurl a dead body off the balcony. She was uptight, believed in everything in it’s proper place and just didn’t seem to care about much except to have the place clean and tidy.

Well at the beginning of Britt-Marie Was Here, Britt-Marie is living in a hotel room, desperate for a job to keep herself occupied after leaving her husband Kent, a serial philanderer who only values his wife for her ability to keep his life in order. There aren’t a lot of jobs in his economy, which Britt-Marie maintains is fine now as that’s what her husband has told her and he’s in business you know, but finally something is found for her. The rec centre at Borg, the kind of place that has only a road through it to recommend it, is looking for someone to keep it tidy.

britt2

The cover I prefer

So Britt-Marie is off to Borg, a town decimated by the loss of their trucking industry jobs, where kids are left to fend for themselves, who only have the remnants of a soccer team left to give order to their days. Britt-Marie lands in Borg with nothing and has to contend with the semi-legalities of the supermarket-pizza-place-pub-laundromat-mechanic, motherless kids whose elder brother is mixed up with nefarious influences, and a blind roommate dealing with the loss of her father. And somehow, Britt-Marie, who knows nothing about soccer, becomes the kids’ soccer coach.

Britt-Marie Was Here has all the hallmarks of a Backman novel but instead of feeling repetitive and unoriginal, it is comforting and fun. Britt-Marie herself remains essentially the same – she still values cleanliness, has a love for glass cleaner, and prefers that things are done as they have always been done – but she makes room in her life for those who live in Borg. In so doing, she allows hidden parts of herself to come back to life after lying dormant for years. We come to realize that there has always been more to Britt-Marie. And Borg feels all the effects of Britt-Marie having been in town.

In the end, once again, I found myself in tears. It’s not a Fredrik Backman book unless you find yourself in tears in the end.

 

 

12

Screw being likeable: All Grown Up

Last week, I promised that when I got home from the lake, I would actually come to this space and blog about some of the books that I read.

Finally, here I am. Better late than never. Although I think the absence probably tormented me more than it did you.

At the last minute, I decided to tuck Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up into my bag. It ended up being a glorious addition – I even got to enjoy it in the sunshine for about an hour!

allgrownup

Andrea, our heroine, has left her art grad program and moved back to New York City to start a corporate job and live on her own for the first time in her life. And while the lives of her friends, colleagues, mother and brother all move forward, she’s stuck in this cycle of lovers, work projects and gentrification in the neighbourhood she’s calling home. Each chapter tackles an event or person in her life and together, they put the pieces of her life together for the reader.

Before I read this book, I kept hearing about people not enjoying it or not finishing it because they didn’t find the heroine “likeable.” This is something we all need to stop doing eh? Heroines don’t need to be likeable. Is Holden Caulfield likeable? What about Gatsby? Heathcliffe and Mr Rochester kind of suck. But they don’t have to be likeable because they are male. We need to extend the same courtesy to heroines. Women have layers – let us showcase them in all their unlikeable glory.

Maybe you realize now that I am not one of the people that felt this way. I love how contrary and messy and sharp Andrea is. I love that she avoids her family, is very clear eyed about how her relationships with women change once they get married and have babies, and how she kind-of-but-not-really laments that she took a corporate world job instead of slaving away as a starving artist.

All Grown Up leaves breadcrumbs of a life in each chapter – something casually mentioned in one chapter becomes the focus in another so that in the end, you get the whole picture. It was unexpected in a myriad of ways – I didn’t expect to be as affected by it as I was. It was both funnier and more serious than I thought it would be.

Oh yes, Attenberg has gifted us with a brilliant, incisive, hilarious, wonderful book about a woman living her own life and giving no f*cks, except when she does. I loved it.

13

Lake Reads: Easter 2017

It’s been pretty quiet around here eh?

I’m going through another reading rough patch – I’m having a lot of trouble concentrating on reading! It’s been really busy at work and we’re still house hunting (which is the most intense experience out here) so I don’t have much left for this space.

BUT.

That’s about to change because it’s Easter and you know what that means? I’m headed to my in-laws’ house and all that’s expected of me in the next few days is to read and have some drinks. Maybe also run to town for ice cream.

lake reads

I have been looking forward to this weekend for weeks and weeks, thinking about what books will come with me. I’ve changed my mind many times but in the end, these are the books that I’m taking with.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. You may recall that I wasn’t a massive fan of My Brilliant Friend. It took me more than a year to take a chance on the second book in the series, The Story of a New Name. Well, that one converted me. I fell for that book hard and I think it’s safe to say that I’m obsessed by the friendship between Lila and Elena. I can’t wait to get into the third book.

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. This account of a white journalist going undercover as a black man in the Deep South in 1959 is more serious lake reading but it feels important and timely.

The Kept Woman by Karin Slaughter. What can I say? I’ve been in a murder state of mind. I’ve been listening to as many episodes of the My Favorite Murder podcast as time will allow. Given my non-focus abilities recently, I need something to grip me. I was haunted by Slaughter’s Pretty Girls. I look forward to her scaring the crap out of me again. This book needs to be back at the library on Tuesday – someone is waiting for it!

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. When I saw this post from Amy @ Read a Latte I was intrigued. I mean, it’s serious if you read a book twice in a week. When I was next at the library, I saw this book sitting out and felt like it was meant to be. I like the idea of an office duel between competing assistants who hate each other right about now.

The Secrets You Keep by Kate White. I don’t want to brag but I know the guy who took the picture that they used for this cover. When he told me about it I looked the book up and it sounded interesting: what would you do if your new husband is keeping secrets from you, ones that are potentially dangerous? I pre-ordered it (something I NEVER do) and now I’m taking it to the lake.

The Edge of the Fall by Kate Williams. I read the first book in this promised trilogy (The Storms of War) quite a while ago. It was the story of a German-English family navigating society into the First World War and what it meant for their place in it. Kate Williams is an incredible biographer and she has taken equal care in crafting some solid historical fiction.

And that’s “it.” Three full days, 10 hours worth of car rides – I can do some serious reading damage this weekend. Promise that when I get back, I will actually post about some of it.

Happy Easter, friends!

4

Library Checkout – March 2017

librarycheckout2

Another month just about over, which means it’s time to look at how we used the library via Charleen @ It’s a Portable Magic.

I felt like I was in the library all the time this month but the actual reading shows that I didn’t get through whatever I brought home very quickly. I bought a lot of books this month (bad, bad) and was excited about a lot of them. In a way you could say that I was just sticking to my blogging goal of reading the books I already have?

Read
Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory
Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (I’m a proper Canadian now, guys!)

DNF’d
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Queen Margot by Alexandre Dumas (I got 200 pages in and just did not care. However, I recently found the non-fiction version of the story and the showdown between Catherine de Medici and her daughter, Margaret of Valois and I’m super excited about it)

Returned unread
none, yet…

Currently out
The Lights of Paris by Eleanor Brown (anyone read this? I loved The Weird Sisters but have been avoiding this for some reason…)
The Hating Game by Sally Thorne
The Kept Woman by Karin Slaughter

On hold
Sisi by Alison Pataki (I really really liked the first one, The Accidental Empress)
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (conversion complete)

There you have it. Kind of a low-key library month. If you used the library this month, visit Charleen to link up!

7

Sofia Khan is Not Obliged

I went to the library to pick up my hold (The Handmaid’s Tale) and ended up taking home a couple of other books (because that’s how that works) including Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik.

It’s billed as the “Muslim Bridget Jones.” I hope I don’t need to tell you what I think about that comparison (I hate it) but it kind of gives you an idea of what we’re talking about here.

sofia khan.jpg

Sofia Khan is a 31 year old Muslim woman who works in publishing. She lives at home with her parents and her sister, who is getting ready to be married. Sofia has just broken things off with a man she thought she was going to marry. But when he refused to move out of his parents’ home, Sofia knows there isn’t a future for them. So now she’s trying to figure out what her future does look like – does she want to get married? Will she move out on her own?

And then the editors at work decide that she would be the perfect person to write a book about Muslim dating! So now she’s writing a book about something she’s very conflicted about.

Soon she begins mining her friends’ relationship experiences for stories, signs up for online dating (on a Muslim site) and stressing about writing this book that she isn’t really sure she ever wanted to write in the first place.

I liked this book – I was charmed by Sofia and her family; her parents who were the result of an arranged marriage and spend their time bickering about everything; various aunts and uncles who arrive on scene for celebrations; Sofia’s older sister, Maria, who is everything you could ever hope to have in an older sister and is also obsessed with wedding plans. I also loved Sofia’s friends – they were all so involved in each others’ lives – from showing up to support one becoming a second wife, to pretending it was no big deal that one of them was falling in love with a black man.

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged is written in a kind of modern diary style, complete with text messages and emails. It isn’t really my favourite style, but it worked in this case. However, it could have done with another editing look – there were some amazing oversights (like Pasiktan instead of Pakistan).

But overall, this was a charming, light, quirky book. It had a lot of elements that I enjoy in this kind of “chick lit” book but the fact that Sofia was a devout Muslim (she wears a hijab, can’t see herself not marrying a Muslim, prays five times a day, doesn’t drink etc) made it so much more interesting. The family dynamics and the complications of her faith in a city that doesn’t always smile on it (she’s called a terrorist a couple of times by other commuters) made for a much more compelling read.

If you’re looking for something easy, something to make you giggle, I’d recommend this one. I’ve added the follow up (The Other Half of Happiness) to my list.