Tag Archives: Elena Ferrante

Book reviews + catch-up

Oh, my book reading has felt so scattered this year! So all-over-the-place, so sporadic. I accept, accept, accept this. I’ve been back in the U.S. for Christmas & family time for four days now. What happened in November/December?

I went on a six-day badass trip to India.

My old kindle broke because I either a) stepped on it, b) brutally abused it by carrying it around in my backpack and tossing it around everywhere without considering that I should be more careful, or c) the warranty expired, and as soon as the warranty of any electronic object expires, it is time for said object to break.

I work in the library downtown now, ten years after I got my first library job in 2005 back in Portland. I shelve books, wear a black lanyard around my neck that identifies me as a helpful staff member, do many fancy things on the computer and meet World War II veterans.

Kobe Bryant retired via a poem, and it made me think about how 15 years ago, I was a huge Lakers fan and watched the games obsessively with my dad and brothers. I’d even stay up super late at night to check the scores online, follow it play-by-play in the painfully slow Yahoo updates, and tell my sister about what happened as we walked to school the next day, me blurry-eyed and fuzzy from lack of sleep while she, bless her heart, pretended to be interested. We both played on the basketball team in middle school. I played center because I was so tall; my nickname was ‘Mona’ (‘Blondie’) even though I never really thought of myself as blond, and I have maybe never felt so blond or so tall in my whole life as I did back then. We won the championship at least once, my senior year of high school; we would travel to tournaments in cities far away in the mountains (where I’d be incredibly cold at night) or the coast (where I’d be incredibly dehydrated and sunburned during the day). I once ate an enormous cheeseburger before a game despite my coach’s stern expression and felt horribly sick afterwards. The injuries I have gotten while playing basketball include a sprained ankle and a dislocated knee that has dislocated at least twice since then and still clicks when I go up and down the stairs. I still sometimes have dreams where I’ve missed practice, failed to defend the attacker, missed the game-winning shot.

I worked on my PhD and went to a conference in York.

I started watching Twin Peaks to help me with my dissertation (Bolaño was a big fan).

I lost my passport and had to pay a fee in order to travel to the U.S. for Christmas.

I started reading Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents, Valerie Luiselli’s Story of My Teeth and Lydia Davis’ Can’t and Won’t, but kept losing them in my room beneath piles of papers and dirty laundry, or when they fell into the abyss-like gap in between my bed and the radiator.

My cat was told to lose weight by the vet.

I read Middlemarch obsessively and am still nowhere close to finishing.

I spilled coffee all over my library copy of Bolaño’s The Unknown University and left it on my windowsill for weeks, afraid to return it.

I taught a class about literary theory to young students in a rural English village (town? hamlet?).

I went to London and saw this exhibition by Ai Wei Wei.

And I folded over the upper-right corner of the page where this passage appears, from Ali Smith’s new collection of short stories:

Meanwhile, in my sleep, the freed-up me’s went wild.

They spraypainted the doors and windows of the banks, urinated daintily on the little mirror-cameras on the cash machines. They emptied the machines, threw the money on to the pavements. They stole the fattened horses out of the abattoir fields and galloped them down the high streets of all the small towns. They ignored traffic lights. They waved to surveillance. They broke into all the call centres. They sneaked up and down the liftshafts, slipped into the systems. They randomly wiped people’s debts for fun. They replaced the automaton messages with birdsong. They whispered dissent, comfort, hilarity, love, sparkling fresh unscripted human responses into the ears of people working for a pittance answering phones for businesses whose CEOs earned thousands of times more than their workforce. They flew inside aircraft fuselages and caused turbulence on every flight taken by everyone who ever ripped anyone else off… They  marauded into porn shoots and made the girls and women laugh. They were tough and delicate. They were winged like the seeds of sycamores. There were hundreds of them. Soon there would be thousands. They spread like mushrooms. They spread like spores. There would be no stopping them. 

Public library and other stories (Ali Smith)

This collection has a noble goal, that of drawing attention to the current plight of public libraries in the UK, i.e. the cutting of funding and increasing closures. So in between almost every short story, there’s an italicized excerpt from someone (authors like Miriram Toews and Kate Atkinson, and plenty of people I’m not familar with) talking about what public libraries mean to them. A few of these excerpts are quite moving and memorable (like Toews’, and the final one by Sarah Wood) butI’m afraid most are pretty skimmable and similar-sounding. That doesn’t take away from the nobility of the cause, though, but I personally found myself racing through most of them in order to get to the fiction.

Anyway… I will always love reading Ali Smith. My favorite stories are the opener, “Last,” (which is maybe the most Ali Smith-esque story in the collection, with its abrupt, unexpected ending and beautiful lack of closure, involving the narrator’s encounter with a woman locked in a stationary train), “The beholder” (with the oh-so appealing plot of a rosebush growing out of the narrator’s chest), and “The human claim” (a story about credit card theft, Google maps and D.H. Lawrence). “After life” is also wickedly bad-ass with its contrast of modern technology with early silent films, and maybe the most outspoken story in terms of social commentary.

It’s also interesting to me that a lot of these stories blur the line between fiction and non-fiction, or even assuming the form of an essay (especially “The poet”), which is something she played a lot with in Artful. Is this where the future of the short story lies, in the blurring (or even erasure?!) between these two genres? Who knows. All I know for know is I love these sentences, these phrases, like the one in which “a work of art” is transformed into “a work of life,” a moment that (when I read it on the page) brought tears to my eyes, because yes, I am sentimental like that, and yes, I need to be reminded of it sometimes.

Purity (Jonathan Franzen)

I only just finished this today but still want to post about it. I’ve been reading Jonathan Franzen for fourteen years now and still find him just as enjoyable. Even though somewhere along the way it somehow became “uncool” to like him…? IDK. All I know is that I’m finding this novel as delicious to read as Middlemarch, and that’s a gut feeling I trust. In the same way I ignore Kanye West’s presence on Kim Kardashian’s Instagram feed (and indeed, Kim Kardashian in general) so that I can continue enjoying and appreciating his music, I also ignore whatever it is about Jonathan Franzen that people don’t like. I could probably do some google research to try to find out… so it goes. Life is too short to be a hater. I WILL say that I remember absolutely nothing about Freedom, other than random things like the scene where the guy saves a ring/piece of jewelry from his poop, or the fact that it dealt with birdwatching. I have a feeling that Purity will stick around in my memory a lot longer, though.

There are so many things about this book I enjoyed… the contemporary themes (journalism! The Internet! Surveillance! Nuclear warheads!). The darkly dislikable characters (no one can write a bitter couples fight like Franzen can). The hopping across time and geography (1980’s Germany, 21st-century Oakland, Bolivia and Texas). The grumpy old man attitude towards the Internet and technology, the private sphere vs. the public. The oh so Franzen-esque scene where hope is gained from watching a few brown sparrows frolic in a bush, or from a game of tennis (a possible David Foster Wallace homage?)… because in this effed up world, what other places is one meant to look for hope?

Just like with Kanye West, I look forward to the next work, and the next deliciously, classically Franzen passages:

With every different keyword he entered with his name in every different search engine, he was no longer content to read the first page or two of results. He wondered what was on the next page, the one he hadn’t read yet, and after he’d looked at the next page he found yet another page. Repeat, repeat. There seemed to be no limit to the reassurance he required. He was so immersed and implicated in the Internet, so enmeshed in its totalitarianism, that his online existence was coming to seem realer than his physical self. The eyes of the world, even the eyes of his followers, didn’t matter for their own sake, in the physical world. Who even cared what a person’s private thoughts about him were? Private thoughts didn’t exist in the retrievable, disseminable, and readable way that data did. And since a person couldn’t exist in two places at once, the more he existed as the Internet’s image of him, the less he felt like he existed as a flesh-and-blood person. The Internet meant death. (492)

Pip nodded, but she was thinking about how terrible the world was, what an eternal struggle for power. Secrets were power. Money was power. Being needed was power. Power, power, power: how could the world be organized around the struggle for a thing so lonely and oppressive in the having of it? (539)

A Death in the Family (Karl Ove Knausgård)

Believe the hype. It took me months to finish this book (mostly on trains, planes and buses) but it was well worth it. I am definitely going to read the second one (I don’t know about the third, but we’ll see!).

What is so badass about this book?

  • It is really long.
  • It goes on for PAGES and PAGES about incredibly mundane, every day things (Karl is a teenager. Karl tries to get drunk. He tries to go to a party. He tries to kiss a classmate. He listens to 80’s music on cassette tapes). And yet somehow it is INCREDIBLY GRIPPING and COMPELLING. I found this way more of a page turner than The Bone Clocks, or indeed any Dan Brown-esque novel ever (not that I’ve read that many :p). This book is like the embodiment of that classic Virginia Woolf quote about the “appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner.” And then BOOM, something big in life hits you, violently disrupting the repetitive banality. The “something big” in this book happens to be the father’s death. The scene of Karl and his brother cleaning out his incredibly nasty, alcoholic-ravaged house is one that I will never forget.
  • Karl is ruthlessly self-dissecting of himself and his family, in a way that reminded me of George Orwell at his best in his non-fiction. “Brutal” is a good word. “Deliciously acerbic” is another.
  • Is this a novel? Non-fiction? WHO KNOWS? WHO CARES.
  • Just like life, there is no plot. Rather, it’s one event after another. I had no idea how bored I was with artificially-constructed, conveniently comforting, mainstream plots until I read this book. I honestly barely noticed its absence until I reached the end.
  • It deals a lot (and very seriously) with death. Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” is an excellent comparison.
  • The writing style–specifically the readability, his fearlessness in using clichés and stating things very simply and openly. As this review in the New Yorker puts it, “where many contemporary writers would reflexively turn to irony, Knausgaard is intense and utterly honest, unafraid to voice universal anxieties, unafraid to appear naïve or awkward.”
  • It would make a really good Werner Herzog film, especially with Herzog himself narrating the passage below:

But when I was twenty-four I saw life as it was. And it was OK, I had my small pleasures too, it wasn’t that, and I could endure any amount of loneliness and humiliation, I was a bottomless pit, just bring it on, there were days when I could think, I receive, I am a well, I am the well of the failed, the wretched, the pitiful, the pathetic, the embarrassing, the cheerless and ignominious. Come on! Piss on me! Shit on me too if you wish! I receive! I endure! I am endurance itself! (300)


Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy)

This book made me rethink my life. Isn’t that nuts? What the heck do me and Thomas Hardy have in common, anyway? Him a 19th-century English novelist, me a 21st-century gal? I originally read this book because I saw the movie and loved it (especially the soundtrack), and ended up loving the book for its ability to connect with me across time, space, geography. Nobody can write a killer ecstatic nature scene like Hardy. And kudos to him for representing all of his characters so fairly. I had the feels particularly for Boldwood, putting up with the dreaded “let’s just be friends?” moment.

Those killer details! His feverish anxiety continued to show its existence by a galloping motion of his fingers upon the side of his thigh as he went down the stairs. (Apologies for the lack of page numbers–I read it on my now defunct kindle!) The cloth of the tent… became bulged into innumerable pimples such as we observe on a sack of potatoes.

The quippy observations that would be oh so helpful for any Modern and Forthwright Woman! Insights straight out of Ferrnate!

When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.

It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.

Once I felt I could be content with nothing less than the highest homage from the husband I should choose. Now, anything short of cruelty will content me.

Taylor Swift should read this book.

 

Sisters By a River (Barbara Comyns)

So this is undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve ever read. Not just one of the best first-person narrators…. or books about childhood…. or books about frolicking in the English countryside as a child (which will forever be  a favorite topic of mine, thanks to the formative experience of reading novels such as Tom’s Midnight Garden and Goodnight Mr. Tom in my youth). Get it straight: ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS EVER, PERIOD. Even Emily Gould put it on her book club list.

I don’t want to say much more because I don’t want to spoil it. And also in many ways this book feels indescribable, a singular reading experience I have never had before in my life. Basically… read this. I’m never going to forget it.

The Story of the Lost Child (Elena Ferrante)

A decidedly satisfying conclusion to Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. Things are wrapped up in ways that don’t feel trite, and the final pages end basically in the only way possible, linking beautifully with the very first volume.  I’ve learned so much about both writing and reading from these books. About how more than anything else, its characters and their relationships with each other that truly grip me in fiction. About history–the linking of the personal with the political (it sounds so cliché, and yet is so true). The tense urgency of her prose, the way her sentences rush on, tumbling into each other. The painfully true observations of the difficulty balancing family life with work, especially as a woman. The shadows of mothers and daughters; the complicated relation with and notion of home. And reigning high above it all is the complexity of Elena and Lila’s friendship, unforgettable and unsurmountable.

I can’t wait to reread all four of these books again.

Lila is right, one writes not so much to write, one writes to inflict pain on those who wish to inflict pain. The pain of words against the pain of kicks and punches and the instruments of death. Not much, but enough. (pg. 309)

Leave a comment

Filed under Ali Smith, books, fiction, review, women writers

Women Writers Are the Best

The following library books are currently sitting on my shelves: The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink, Lila by Marilynne Robinson, When Mystical Creatures Attack by Kathleen Founds, God Help the Child by Toni Morrison. As special guests I also have 10:04 by Ben Lerner and The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan. Subconsciously or not, I’ve been reading a lot of books by women this year. Is this even worth commenting on? Is it genuinely “out of the ordinary” for me in terms of my reading habits? Do I really want to make the effort and look at my reading lists from previous years and “tally up” the gender balance? The answer to that question is “no, I am lazy.” BUT needless to say this year I have genuinely been enjoying pigging out on the gluttonous diet of fantastic books by contemporary women writers: Hilary Mantel, Jenny Offil, Jenny Erpenbeck… It’s a trend that I want to keep going until the end of the year. Here are some fantastic books I’ve read recently that happen to have been written by women, books I feel so excited about I can’t NOT write about them:

The First Bad Man (Miranda July)

Wow, did this book blow me away. HIGHLY recommended. I liked her short story collection, but wasn’t the world’s #1 biggest fan of it. Her films were also A-OK (especially the talking cat, and the sense of melancholy). However, this book is really something else: the brutality and emotion of it is like a drop-kick in the face.

The narrator of The First Bad Man is Cheryl Glickman, a woman in her 40’s who works for a woman’s self-defense non-profit. She harbors a crush on a board member named Philip who is pursuing an affair with a sixteen-year-old girl. Cheryl also believes she has a karmic connection with a soul called Kubelko Bondy, who reappears in the bodies of newborn babies that she randomly encounters in grocery stores, on sidewalks, etc. All this makes the novel sound much “quirkier” and contrived than it really is, but believe me, the emotional authenticity is there. The plot of the novel basically begins when Cheryl’s bosses ask (demand?) that Cheryl host their twenty-year-old daughter Clee. Clee is a blonde bombshell with enormous breasts who watches TV all day, drinks giant bottles of Diet Pepsi, never bathes, eats Thanksgiving-flavored microwave meals and has a terrible foot odor problem. She is also physically abusive and begins beating Cheryl up. And then…

“And then” is the part that is hard not to spoil but it is also the point in which the book becomes gloriously, deliciously risky and weird. I LOVE reading books like this one, or A.M. Homes May We Be Forgiven, books that just throw ALL CAUTION TO THE WIND and just write WHATEVER regardless of the fact that some people may find it tasteless or gross. It’s a section that’s hard to summarize… um, so essentially to defend herself from Clee’s punches, Cheryl begins re-enacting scenes from the self-defense videos released by her non-profit. And slowly but surely the “roleplaying” potential of these scenes get more and more interesting, but not quite in the way you might expect. It’s a section of the book that raises fascinating 21st-century questions about consent, love, boundaries, communication and how to be an adult in relationships (especially in the light of books like Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey, two books that my high school students this summer sneeringly call “abusive” and dangerous to society). It’s not just a kinky S&M question–how do you “self-defend” yourself from love and the inevitable pain that follows?

Sometimes I looked at her sleeping face, the living flesh of it, and was overwhelmed by how precarious it was to love a living thing. She could die simply from lack of water. It hardly seemed safer than falling in love with a plant. (213)

What I loved most about this book were the humorous sentences, similes I’d never read before that made me shake my head in awe and snort in delight. I found this one particularly memorable: What would be the emoticon for ‘Carry me to your penthouse and tend to me as a husband?’ (pg. 90) The book also deserves praise for being so readable; it’s almost a literary thriller: a lot of things HAPPEN, major events, in almost every chapter, which keeps the pace brisk and gripping. The novel also did a good job of tying threads together in a satisfying way, so items or characters from early scenes (like Richard the homeless gardener and the snails he asks Cheryl to order) end up having a big emotional payoff. I loved the overall message of this book (at least, the message that I got out of it): that it’s okay for a woman to be “everything.” Motherly and sexual, needy and loving, ugly and brutal. We can be many things all at once, and that’s okay. Also, I don’t know the last time I read such a moving ending: yeah, some people might find it sentimental, but I thought it was an absolute stroke of genius.

There were some things in this book I could have done without. Cheryl’s relationship with her therapist, for example, was something I never quite “got.” I guess the therapist and her Secretarylike relationship with her boss was supposed to be a contrast to Cheryl and Clee? I really didn’t need the scene where the therapist invites Cheryl to pee in an empty carton of Chinese food rather than use the elevator to go up to the bathroom, though–that was probably the one moment that took me out of the novel’s “reality.”

But in the end who cares? I love the final paragraph in this NYTimes review of the book, with its emphasis on loving messy, flawed brave books rather than scared shitless shiny perfection. I’ll take a jagged, wild book like this any day over anything that’s smooth or comforting. Like any modern woman, shouldn’t a modern book deserve to be all things at any time? Gloriously perfect AND flawed?

But as the sun rose I crested the mountain of my self-pity and remembered I was always going to die at the end of this life anyway. What did it really matter if I spent it like this–caring for this boy–as opposed to some other way? I would always be earthbound; he hadn’t robbed me of my ability to fly or live forever. I appreciated nuns now, not the conscripted kind, but modern women who chose it. If you were wise enough to know that this life would consist mostly of letting go of things you wanted, then why not get good at the letting go, rather than the trying to have? (220)

The Days of Abandonment; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Elena Ferrante)

Much has been written about Elena Ferrante and her Neapolitan novels online (including myself, albeit badly & sloppily, LOL). I came to her by way of James Wood and have subsequently recommended her to my mother, sister, sister’s book club and probably many, many other individuals.

Let’s start with The Days of Abandonment, a stand-alone novel. This book follows the simple premise of what would it be like to be “the abandoned woman,” the one who is “known to be left” (as Sharon Olds puts it in one of her poems). I remember feeling “left” in college. Oh, to be dumped at twenty years old! There’s nothing quite like it! Especially with the extremely jolly existence of social media. How miraculous to look back at it now and feel so distant, the memories of library weeping and obsessive livejournal and facebook stalking. That is both the miracle and brutality of time: the fact that things that can feel SO emotionally important and raw to you at one point can after a certain number of years feel like… well, nothing.

This novel very much focuses upon the “raw” period of a break-up, beginning with the scene in which the husband of Olga (the main character) announces that he is leaving her. From them on it is all intense emotional territory, as Olga reflects upon the stories of lost love she heard from her mother, neighbors and books, stories about how “when you don’t know how to keep a man you lose everything, female stories of the end of love, what happens when, overflowing with love, you are no longer loved, are left with nothing.” The woman-who-lost-everything figure that Olga remembers from these stories is referred to as a “poverella,” an unhinged, emotional figure who would strike an icy chord of fear in the hearts of all my ex-boyfriends: “The poverella was crying, the poverella was screaming, the poverella was suffering, torn to pieces by the absence of the sweaty red-haired man, and his perfidious green eyes.” Initially, Olga is resolved to not follow in the “poverlla’s” path: “Don’t act like the poverella, don’t be consumed by tears. Don’t be like the women destroyed in a famous book of your adolescence.” In an extremely self-reflexive statementOlga reflects upon the abandoned, Madame Bovary-like heroines she read about in the novels of her adolescence:

These women are stupid. Cultured women, in comfortable circumstances, they broke like knickknacks in the hands of their straying men. They seemed to me sentimental fools: I wanted to be different, I wanted to write stories about women with resources, women of invincible words, not a manual for the abandoned wife with her lost love at the top of her thoughts. I was young, I had pretensions. I didn’t like the impenetrable page, like a lowered blind. I liked light, air between the slats. I wanted to write stories full of breezes, of filtered rays where dust motes danced. And then I loved the writers who made you look through every line, to gaze downward and feel the vertigo of the depths, the blackness of inferno.

What ends up being ironic is that The Days of Abandonment is definitely NOT a book about one of these “invincible” characters (which is not to say that Olga herself is not resourceful). There is no “light” or “air between the slats” and “breezes” in this book. A key sequence in the novel’s second half has Olga literally trapped in her apartment by a double-lock that she herself has installed, a hysterical sequence that could almost be a slapstick comedy sequence in a mainstream Hollywood film but in this book turns into a suffocating nightmare. I can’t remember the last time I read a book that had as big of a physical effect as this one did: at times, I felt like I was having trouble breathing as I frantically clicked the turn-page button of my kindle. This is a sign of great literature, I think: when it makes you feel physically sick while reading (haha!).

The other primary emotions conveyed by this novel are Olga’s gradually increasing disgust and rage: against her husband, his new lover, her friends, her downstairs neighbor, her own children, and all those with “the satisfied faces of those who do nothing but fuck.” Boy, would my 20-year-old bitter college self have connected with that line!! These sentences, so savage and blunt! “To blow away the past as if it were a nasty insect that has landed on your hand.” “My husband had rolled up the sense of my beauty into a ball and thrown it into the wastebasket, like wrapping paper.” “I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping…  No matter how much I washed, that stink of motherhood remained.”

Profanity and crudeness plays an important role in this book. As Olga puts it to her husband, “I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife ? Fuck you! What words am I supposed to use for what you’ve done to me, for what you’re doing to me?” There is a cruel fascination when reading these scenes: you feel like a spy, an eavedropper, a witness to a terrible break-up in a public space. Olga is normally the person that you feel sorry for from a distance, someone who makes you raise your eyebrows and press your lips together, someone your ex-boyfriends would fearfully call “the Glenn Close character from that stalker movie.” Here, though, you are inside her head, witnessing and experiencing without narrative distance, and as a woman writer myself, there was a genuine sense of liberation to that–an “oh that’s right” sense of recognition. She’s the kind of character that John Cheever and John Updike would have written disparaging stories about in the 50’s, but through Ferrante, the figure of the “damaged, abandoned” woman finally gets her say. And boy does she say a lot.

We are occasions. We consummate life and lose it because in some long-ago time someone, in the desire to unload his cock inside us, was nice, chose us among women. We take for some sort of kindness addressed to us alone the banal desire for sex. We love his desire to fuck, we are so dazzled by it we think it’s the desire to fuck only us, us alone. Oh yes, he who is so special and who has recognized us as special. We give it a name, that desire of the cock, we personalize it, we call it my love. To hell with all that, that dazzlement, that unfounded titillation. Once he fucked me, now he fucks someone else, what claim do I have? Time passes, one goes, another arrives.

This is a brutally powerful book that I will likely never forget, and that I recommend to pretty much everyone.

The Neapolitan novels have a much grander and more ambitious scope than Abandonment (especially since you’re not trapped in an apartment with a character for 50+ pages!). While the first story in the trilogy, My Brilliant Friendfollows the story of Elena and Lila in childhood, The Story of a New Name follows them through the early days of marriage and coming-of-age, while Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is firmly grounded in university years, adulthood and motherhood (two very big “‘hoods” indeed). All novels are set in Naples and can be seen as “Big,” “Ambitious,” Jonathan Franzen-type books in the sense that the small-scale stories of the characters (their relationships, their goals, their families) are closely intertwined with the bigger story of Italy in the 1960’s onwards.

The focus is definitely on Elena and Lila, though, and this is what makes the series so pleasurable and powerful to me. I can’t remember the last time I read a book this affecting and realistic about a close female friendship… if ever. Emily Gould? Judy Blume? See, I’m straining here. The relationship between Elena and Lila is definitely at the heart of the novel–the way they both love and need each other is contrasted with their fear and jealousy, their attempts to both help and sabotage each other. Elena especially struggles with the feeling that Lila is truly the “brilliant” one of the friendship, and that if only Lila had had the same educational opportunities as Elena, it’d Lila who was the famous writer, not her. As Elena herself puts it, when reflecting upon Lila’s troubles, “This is the life that could have been mine, and if it isn’t, it’s partly thanks to her.”

The social context of Italy shines through especially in Book #3, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, particularly through Lila’s wretched job at a sausage factory. Many of the same themes from The Days of Abandonment, especially that of women being defined by men, are also present. What I love most about this series, though, is that is is a book that you feel rather than read; it is something you live through and experience rather than witness. Elena and Lila are passionate, fierce characters who make mistakes and hurt each other and are all too human and familiar, and this more than anything is a mark of great writing.

The End of the Story (Lydia Davis)

Yet another brutally honest book about the end of a relationship. How many times have I typed the word “brutal” in these reviews?! Ouch, ouch, ouch. There were so many moments while reading this book that I thought “THIS IS ME.” So many folded-over pages to mark memorable passages that it bordered on book vandalism. At one point I even inhaled my breath sharply in self-recognition, as though I’d been stabbed.

This is an utterly unique, devastating novel with no plot–the closest thing it has to a traditional structure is the narrator’s obsession with a disintegrating love affair. If The Days of Abandoment is about raw in-the-moment emotions, this book is more focused on distance, organization, and analysis. Even the narrator’s lover remains fairly anonymous by the book’s final page (we never learn his name). The lack of affect and emotion in this book! And yet somehow it still makes you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut! The numbing repetition that can’t help but remind you of your own paralyzingly negative, self-defeating thoughts! The ruthlessness and bluntness with which the narrator observes her motivations! The dark, dark humour!

Like Davis herself, the narrator of this novel is a translator, and is obsessed with what she calls “the dry, precise voices” of the editors of the dictionary she uses–a razor-sharp, dictionary-like precision that is reflected in the style of the novel itself. I had so many “oh god, this is ringing true” moments while reading this… the way she relives/replays moments of their relationship in her head, her dependency/obsession with drinking, the way she won’t get dressed or shower until she feels “thoroughly ripened.” (22) (What a way to describe depression-induced body odor: “ripened!”) The terrible barbecue she and her lover host with too many guests and not enough chicken, the way they become “frightened” by the guests’ hunger. The invasion of her house by insects at the end, the way she saves a moth from drowning “so that it could continue annoying me. But for all its persistence and energy it would not live much longer anyway.” (216)

There are WAY too many quotes that got me while reading this, so I am going to be really ruthless and only type up a few here… the weird thing with Davis is that the power of a lot these quotes is lost without the context, IMHO… her prose is definitely dependent on a build-up, cumulative effect and don’t work too well on their own. But here are a few:

Another thing that bothered me more acutely now was the way I changed when I was with him, into a person I did not quite recognize, even though I told myself I did not have to be the same… I would often play the part of a person I hardly recognized and usually did not like, and the more uncomfortable I was, the nastier this person became. I wasn’t even playing a part, really, since I did not do it deliberately… It was not a different person who appeared at these times but a side of myself that did not appear when I was alone or with other friends, one that was flippant, condescending, self-centered, sarcastic and mean. To be all these things was quite natural to me, even though I did not like them.” (102)

I could not always do what I had to do. For instance, I could not always do even a small cleaning job, and I stepped in my own messes. Once it was a wide smear of tomato pulp I had left on the kitchen floor. I was walking around in my socks talking out loud to him. I stepped in the tomato pulp, and instead of changing my sock I lay down on the bed and read a story, a quiet, well-written, but dull story about deer hunting, while my damp foot, hanging off the edge of the bed, grew colder and colder.” (160)

What did boredom mean then? That nothing more would happen with him. It wasn’t that he was boring, it was that I no longer had any expectations for this companionship with him. There had been expectations, and they had died… what had once been so complete was now so incomplete.” (131)

“I didn’t have him, but I had this writing, and he could not take it away from me.” (197)

Just like all the others, I highly recommend this book. Long live women writers!

5 Comments

Filed under books, review, women writers

IFFP Panel and updated reviews

Everything’s exhausting (<– the best way to utter this sentence is to sing it to the tune of that Lego Movie song). It’s only been exhausting lately, though. Just that time of year. And what’s good is that very, very soon this exhaustion will be done once Easter break starts. Lisbon!! I’m ready for you… not so much for your half-marathon (LOL) but definitely for your infamous custard desserts, which are obviously going to be the best way for me to get in touch with my Portuguese ancestry :D

Something that is definitely AWESOME rather than exhausting is that this year I am on the Shadow IFFP jury! This is an informal group of happy blogging folks who love reading translated & international fiction. We are going to read ALL of the books on this list (with the same kind of BRING IT ON attitude with which one decides to clean all the things). We are then going to select our own shortlist (which will most likely be different from the official one) and then before the real winner is announced we’ll have a top-secret vote/Hunger Games fight-to-the-death and crown our very own 2015 IFFP Prize Shadow Champion. This is a completely unofficial endeavor; there is nothing in it for anybody rather than reading tons of good books, talking about them, discovering new authors and hopefully promoting high-quality translated fiction along the way (you can read all about the other panelists here).

Um, I am also going to be honest and say that I am probably not going to to read EVERY single book on the list by the time the shortlist is announced sometime in mid-April… (sorry Knausgaard, you are probably not going to make the cut… but I totally want to read you someday! I promise!!) BUT either way I am super excited and can’t wait to get started with Murakami tomorrow. I’m also looking forward to Can Xue and Tomás González (a Colombian author I’d heard of but have never read).

In the meantime, here’s an update on some books I’ve read lately in what so far has been a relatively s.l.o.o.o.w. reading year for me… something that is hopefully going to change (!). Before I get started, let me just say that there are TOO MANY GOOD BOOKS in the world. I could have easily given all of the books below an asterisk (which represents excellence) on my reading list–I’ve basically had to refrain myself from actually implementing my usual ranking system or else every book I’ve read so far this year would have one and my list would look totally whack…

My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)

Well, I just gobbled this book down like I was bingeing on Netflix. **** TV! Read books!! I’m currently reading the sequel (The Story of a New Name), but as much as I love being immersed in Naples-world I’m probably going to have to put it aside for now due to all the other reading I have to do (see IFFP news above).

There were several reasons why I found this book (and am finding its sequel) so addictive. The first is the complete and utter pleasure of being sucked into a world that I know absolutely nothing about–I’ve never been to Naples, am obviously not part of the generation of any of these characters, so when I read this book I am basically in a WHOLE NEW WORLD a la Aladdin. THIS is what the very best fiction can do: suck you into an unfamiliar universe that is utterly absorbing. The world-building and level of detail here is comparable to that of a well-done fantasy novel, and I obviously mean that as a big, big compliment.

I also love this book’s ambition– we start out small, with a Judy Blume-esque friendship between two young girls, and then slowly but surely the scope of the novel gets bigger and bigger, taking in the society that they are living in as a whole. Capitalism, communism, and the brutal lack of choice these women are faced with are just a few of the Big Themes this extremely well-executed book grapples with. Let me tell you, as a 21st-century female this book made me feel privileged as hell, especially in terms of the choices I’ve been able to make in regards to my education.

This novel has so much going for it. The prose is very straightfoward and easy to read. The characters are incredibly rich: forever surprising you, full of mystery and contradictions. This adds to one of the biggest pleasures of the novel–you’re constantly trying to figure people out, their motivations, their true selves vs. the roles they must play in society (some of these people would fit right in with Game of Thrones, matching wits with the very best of the Tyrells and Lannisters). Similarly to Game of Thrones, the cast in this book is massive–just listing their names and professions takes up a good 4-5 pages at the beginning (this sure would be one expensive HBO series).

The other thing this book does extremely well are Killer Pay-offs–devastating moments in the book that happen after long build-ups, which make you realize how much you have emotionally invested in these characters. There’s the wedding scene at the end, when you realize that the titular role of the “brilliant friend” has been brutally reversed. Or the fate of a pair of shoes. Or a teacher’s reaction to an old pupil’s visit. Ufff I could go on but I don’t want to spoil anything.

This book served as a strong reminder to me that one of the main reasons I read is for well-developed and interesting characters. Give me characters who want something, who are flawed and complex, and I’ll hang out with them all day. Best of all–there are still TONS of Elena Ferrante books in the world left for me to read!

The End of Days (Jenny Erpenbeck)

“A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.”

This book (and sentences like the one above) pretty much broke my heart. It’s the only book I’ve read on the IFFP list, but I am already (foolishly) thinking it will most likely make my shortlist. The premise is simple, could even be summarized in cheesy phrases: What would happen if this happened and not that? What would the road not taken be like? What if all the roads not taken by a character were all narrated as a single storyline?

From this premise, we thus get a single character who lives many lives, dying and living repeatedly in various incarnations: as an infant who dies in her crib, as a teenage girl in pre-World War II Austria, as a communist intellectual in Moscow, as an old woman in reunified Germany. The ambition in terms of geography and history in this book is stupefying. On a very personal level, I also find this theme of what-might-have-been, what-could-be absolutely gut-wrenching. What keeps us whole in face of the brutal forces of history? How do we keep going? Is something like a complete set of Goethe books (which plays a key role through the novel) enough compensation? With this book and Visitation I now officially bow down to the altar of Erpenbeck, forever and ever.

The Serialist (David Gordon)

Love, love, loved this. Stayed up till 2AM reading it. A Bolaño-esque romp through New York with vampires, trashy sci-fi and pornography, as well as a good dose of Silence-of-the-Lambsesque serial killers, unsuccessful writers-as-detectives and good ol’ page-turning classic plotting fun. The chapters are all super short, which helps makes this book feel like it just flies by. The style is easily readable as well (my kind of writing! No flowery or lyrical prose for me; I’m all about being prosaic). The hysterical scene of Brooklyn hipsters giving a reading in Chapter 20 is alone worth the price of admission. Oh my God, the satire! The convention of ‘expensive jeans, ironic vintage T-shirts and interesting glasses‘, and references to 90’s cartoon shows! (pg. 73) It’s all too painfully familiar for my generation, and a convenient reminder of why I could never live in New York…
I also loved the part in which the narrator contemplates organizing a brigade of writers, like during the Spanish Civil War, in order to help combat crime: ‘I had an image of Dave Eggers and Jonathan Lethem, dressed in matching windbreakers and parked outside my building with flashlights, waiting for Squad Captain DeLillo to call in on the walkie-talkie. ‘Right,’ I said. ‘A gang of armed neurotics. We’d all shoot ourselves or each other.” (pg. 189) LOVE IT. Bolaño would approve.

I keep mentioning Bolaño… I guess because this novel reminded me of something the Bolaño character says in Javier Cercas’ Soldiers of Salamis: I read everything, even bits of paper blowing down the street.” This attitude of complete and utter openness to anything and everything is (for me) not just a literary stance, but a political one. A vital one. An essential attitude towards life, an openness and willingness to anything and everything. For me, the willingness to read everything–bits of paper, detective novels, trashy murder mysteries–isn’t just an attitude towards literature, it’s a lifestyle.

I could say more on that theme but I won’t for now. Instead, I thus heartily recommend this book to anybody who loves reading in its purest form, as utter escapism–reading as fun, as a joy. Here are my favorite quotes, which I can’t help but share:

‘Why do we read? In the beginning, why do we love the books we love? For most, I think, it’s travel, a flight into adventure, into a dream that feels like our own. But for a few it is also escape, flight from boredom, unhappiness, loneliness, from where or who we can no longer bear to be. When I read, the words on the page replace the voice in my head and I cease, for a little while, to be me, or at least to be so painfully aware of being me. These are the real readers, the maniacs, the ones who dose themselves with fiction the way junkies get high, the way lovers adore the beloved: beyond reason.

This kind of reading, ironically, precedes all judgement. Objective criteria don’t enter in, any more than with love. (I say ironically because it is these very readers who, having fallen for books, become scholars, critics, editors–in other words, snobs–while maintaining their secret vice.) Genre fans–vampire lovers, sci-fi geeks, mystery addicts–are a kind of atavistic species, a pure but anomalous breed. They still read like children, foolish and grave, or like teenagers, desperate and courageous. they read because they need to.’ (139)

‘But of course we have only one world, this dark and knotty one, and the truth we find when we look too deep is rarely pretty. Unlike in books, where we are all fearless seekers, in life, most of us would rather not see too clearly.’ (259)

The Scatter Here Is Too Great (Bilal Tanweer)

An enjoyable read. This is a linked collection which acts as a hybrid between novel and short story collection–it’s probably more on the novel side, as I feel most of the pieces would lose something essential if they were read on their own. The book is narrated in multiple voices–traumatized ambulance drivers, young children, aspiring writers, a teenage girl–who are connected by a central event, a bomb blast on a bus in urban Pakistan.

Overall, I liked the stories narrated from the kids’ point of view the best. The strongest for me was the final one, in its haunting, hallucinatory romp through a city labyrinth in search of a man called the Bird of Death–it reads like Kafka and Borges had a baby, and how could I not love a child like that, right? In terms of basic plot points, by the book’s end I was still confused about how the father (Baba) died, but I suspect it was in there somewhere and I just missed it. I also really liked the subtle understatement of the narration, and how we never actually see the moment of the bomb blast itself. There is a lot about this book that is resistant to neat categorization and commercialism–a refusal to tie up loose ends, to turn the book into a nice pretty comforting narrative full of cute Crash-like coincidences. I respect that a lot–the resistance to make things feel complete. Here’s to chaos and fragmentation!

Young Skins (Colin Barrett)

This is one of the strongest contemporary short story collections I’ve ever read (it’s deservedly already appearing on lists like these). I could read stories like “Calm With Horses” all day (fortunately it’s novella length). In these stories we see garbage-filled yards, Alsatians accidentally swallowing wasps, distant fathers working in mines, brutal Irish young adulthood, and pubs, pubs, pubs. The endings are for the most part understated and open. The language is straightforward and to the point. I loved the theme of having stories narrated from the POV of right-hand men, the silent hulking bodyguards who are usually only treated as background material in most gangster, hard-knock-life type films. Strong stories include the aforementioned “Calm With Horses,” “The Clancy Kid” (which opens the collection and has a fantastic scene of a crown-wearing kid guarding a bridge; what a way to evoke Irish mythology, history and the loss of childhood innocence in one go) and “Diamonds” (love the rehab theme). The unexpected switch of perspectives at the end of “Stand Your Skin” and “Kindly Forget My Existence” are also incredible and serve as excellent examples of the kind of gut-punch gesture that the short story form is capable of. My God, there are so many good books to read in this world, and this is definitely, definitely, definitely one of them.

 

Dept. of Speculation (Jenny Offill)

Fuck the plot, as Edna O’Brien said. What I try to capture as a writer is the feeling of being alive, of being awake. Because of this, I’m more apt to follow the wisp of a thought or a half-glimpsed image than chart a sequential series of events. But I absolutely believe in momentum. Momentum is not plot, but it has that same quality of urgency and forward motion, I think.

The quote above is from Jenny Offill’s interview with The Paris Review, and I think it captures a lot about what I enjoyed about this book: the momentum. It’s like an avant-garde, fragmented Lorrie Moore–the humor plays a HUGE role in making a book this “experimental” (whatever that means) work. The plot is simple: a girl and a boy meet, get married, have a baby, go through relationship trouble. What really makes this book exemplary, though, is the execution: it’s narrated in short, often disconnected sentences that form fragmented vignettes–almost like prose poetry. It reminded me of Renata Adler, though I found this book a lot more approachable and enjoyable than Adler–I guess I will always be an old-fashioned plot person at heart. But the style makes sense to me in terms of the content–what relationship is whole rather than fragmented, right? What better way to narrate a long-term love story other than in little moments?

Besides love & sorrow, there’s also bedbugs. And part-time jobs that involve astronauts. There’s fun facts about Buddhism and random quotations. There’s reflections on marriage + art (especially in terms of being a woman & mother). It also deserves to be said that the reading list on Offill’s website (of books that helped inspire her novel) looks absolutely stunning, not least for the inclusion of Mary Ruefle. Overall, this book was good for my soul, and  chances are it’ll be pretty damn good for yours, too.

2 Comments

Filed under books, review, short stories, women writers