4

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.

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8

For the love of a language: In Other Words

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

When Jhumpa Lahiri was 25, she and her sister treated themselves to a trip to Italy. While she was there she fell in love with Italian and spent the next two decades of her life trying to gain fluency in it.

Over the years she took language classes, had tutors converse with her in their native Italian and accepted speaking engagements in Italy so that she could practice the language. And although she gained proficiency in the language, she never felt fluent. So a few years ago, Lahiri decided to move her family to Rome.

Which is how she came to write an entire book in ITALIAN.

parole

In Other Words (In Altro Parole in Italian) is a beautifully written rumination on language and identity. It starts out with Lahiri proclaiming her love for this language and her attempts at learning to speak it fluently and morphs into an essay on identity and belonging. She writes about how she spoke Bengali at home, taught to her by her Indian parents in their home in America, and when she went to school she learned English. Thereafter she was always torn between the language of her home and the language that connected her to her home in America. Italian was the language that she chose to take on, that she loved and wanted to be a part of.

But even though she achieves fluency in Italian (to recap, Lahiri wrote an ENTIRE BOOK IN ITALIAN), she is still not taken to be a native speaker. She writes of her experiences in Italy when before she opens her mouth, they assume that she is foreign because of the way she looks. She writes that although many assume that her previous work is autobiographical (for the simple fact that a lot of her stories originate in India), she feels that this is the first book that is about herself. She writes,

How to define this book? […] It’s a point of arrival and of departure. It’s based on a lack, an absence. Starting with the title, it implies a rejection. This time I don’t accept the words I already know, the ones I should be writing with. I look for others.

Or, in Italian if you prefer:

Come definire questo libre? […] È un punto di arrivo e di partenza. È fondato su una mancanza, un’assenza. A partire dal titolo, implica un rifiuto. Questa volta non accetto le parole che conoscevo già, con cui avrei dovuto scrivere. Ne cerco altre.

I can’t get over the fact that Lahiri wrote this entire book, this beautiful book on language and love and identity and belonging, in a language she started learning when she was 25. At the beginning she explains that she had spent the last two years reading and writing solely in Italian and when it came time to translate this book, she didn’t want to do it herself. That she knew it would be too difficult to resist trying to make the Italian better, to use her stronger language to prop up her efforts in her chosen language.

This book is exquisite and brilliant and I loved every word of it.

 

22

Batch Reviews: Edition the First

You know that feeling you have when you’ve read a number of books and haven’t talked about any of them? That vaguely uneasy feeling that makes you feel kind of bad for even being online at all since you’re obviously not doing anything of value?

That’s kind of where I’ve been living in 2016. I read a bunch of books over Christmas and meant to get on here and talk about them and then I just didn’t. And now we’re in that horrible place where I read some of these books WEEKS ago and I’m supposed to discuss them in a meaningful way?

To clear the backlog (mostly of guilt) I’m going to batch them together in mini-reviews. No rhyme or reason to the groups. Random. Kind of like these posts in the first place.

nightingale

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. I was not going to read this. And then I overheard someone in a bookstore mention to a customer that she had never cried so hard reading a book. My sister and a friend both had the same experiences. I got it for Christmas and it was the first book I read in 2016.

Vianne Mauriac’s husband has left for the front and she and her daughter, Sophie, are left to care for their home as best they can. Soon a German soldier tells them that he’s going to be billeting in their home, complicating all their lives. Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, has always been rebellious and more than a little bit reckless. Having been kicked out of a final school, she is at a loose end when Paris is invaded. Running from Paris, to Vianne’s small village, she meets a young man and falls in love. That’s how she becomes involved in the Resistance.

It took me ages to become invested in this book. Maybe I’ve been reading too much WWII fiction – at times it felt like we were just checking off WWII cliches from a list: forbidden love, German soldier living with you, resistance fighters, Jewish complications, harsh winters, poverty and black markets. But at some point, it becomes more than that. It’s two sisters, each fighting for their future, sacrificing almost everything in the process. As they fight for survival, they also fight each other and the relationship that has always been complicated.

In the end, I was bawling my eyes out on the bus, despite being told not to read the end on the bus. So I guess it was worth it.

ferrante

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Everyone and their mother seems to have read this story of two friends, Elena and Lila, growing up in a poor neighbourhood in Naples post-WWII. Seems like you either love it or you hate it.

Heinous cover art aside, I fall somewhere in the middle. I love that Ferrante is this anonymous person, who does not discuss the work once it is finished. I love the era in Italy and getting a chance to learn something about what it was like to be a child in an Italy freshly ravaged by war, the social structure that dictated daily life.

But mostly I found it hard going to even get through this. I wanted to give up a number of times. Lila and Elena are best friends but they also act kind of like enemies. It seems more like the accident of their having been born around the same time in the same building, meant that they were expected to be friendly. Elena ends up excelling in school, going to the high school and learning Latin and Greek while Lila is pulled out of school once elementary school is over. Yet, Lila still manages to learn Greek and Latin and accounting and design shoes in her father’s shop.

At times I wasn’t totally convinced that Lila wasn’t a sociopath. We follow the girls to the day of Lila’s wedding and then it ends. But it’s the kind of ending that is supposed to make you want to pick up the next book. I admit that I am curious. I know that IF I do pick up the next book, The Story of a New Name, it will be from the library.

OK. That’s two out of the way. There are more to come! Probably!

PS if you have a  snappy name for these, hit me up!

 

6

A Bookish Vacation

I won’t bore you with photos from my whole trip (we took over 1000 photos…) but there were some particularly bookish attractions we stumbled upon or hunted down on our trip. No Italian libraries but plenty of other distractions.

Take me back!