Sunday, May 1, 2016

Book Reviews April 2016

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante.  I’ve heard so many good things about Elena Ferrante’s quartet of novels, of which My Brilliant Friend is the first.  Having said that, however, I realized while reading that I didn’t know any specifics about why the novels are thought to be so good; all I really knew was that Ferrante never makes any kind of author appearance, and all of Europe is abuzz over just who she might be.  (That is, is she really a literature professor or is “Elena Ferrante” the nom de plume of someone famous.  Speculation abounds).  I enjoyed the book, although I was not blown away by it.  If I understand it correctly, the quartet is about a friendship between two women, and this first book is about their childhood growing up in a slum in Naples.  The narrator, Elena Greco, excels in school, and is driven to do better by the innate talent of her classmate and eventual friend, Lila.  Education is not the norm for either Lena’s or Lila’s family, but Lena’s family enables her to continue on to middle and then high school (unheard of for that area) because of a teacher’s intercession.  Lila is not able to continue on after elementary school, although for awhile she works hard to educate herself by reading almost every book in the library.  Lila is smart and odd and ferocious, and Lena is drawn to her, although she does see her good and bad qualities.  The book is about how their paths veer and how each is envious of what the other has.  It’s also about a friendship and luck.  It was interesting and I look forward to reading the next three; I don’t quite see what the fuss is all about yet.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.  I just finished this book on the train today and am still struck speechless by it.  It’s a long novel and wonderfully written.  The writing drew me in so much that I would just barely remember to get off at the right train stop, and once I did I really didn’t know where I was or what I should be doing.  It would take me a few minutes to regroup.  It starts out being the story of four male friends who meet in college, and then she follows two of them in particular through the next almost forty years of their lives.  The main character, Jude St. Francis, is a man who had probably the worst imaginable childhood possible.  He is very scarred by his first fifteen years, mentally, emotionally, and physically, and Yanagihara focuses on how he struggles to believe himself worthy of a fulfilling life, despite his life’s beginnings.  The novel is really a love story about Jude – between him and his partner, between him and his friends, and between him and his father figure, Harold.  It is often a hard book to read – Jude self-mutilates – but there is something so magnetic about her writing that I couldn’t wait until I could open the book again.  I have a few small complaints – the organization is a little haphazard for one.  At first it seems like it is going to be about the four friends equally, but then it ends up being mainly Jude’s story.  Also, at some point through the 700 page book you realize that it is always going to be about the present, but then with bits of Jude’s past story doled out here and there, and sometimes that got a little annoying.  I’m also still working out what I think about how she presents Jude’s abuse.  There’s been a lot of controversy about this book, some of which concerns the constant victimization of Jude, and what this says about the victim culture of today.  And then Jude and his friends all end up so successful and with such money, that the book has been criticized as a kind of rich city lifestyle porn.  Both are valid criticisms, but I think the book goes beyond that and is a really impressive achievement.  It is epic.  I can't stop thinking about it.

How To Cook a Moose by Kate Christensen.  This is the kind of nonfiction I like best:  a mixture of memoir and food writing with recipes.  A new Mainer, Christensen concentrates in this book on her adventures with Maine food and the people who grow and make it.  She’s a good writer and enthusiastic and I enjoyed reading the book.  That being said, I don’t think I could find someone who I have less in common with culinarily than Christensen.  What she likes to eat, I do not; what I like to eat, she never does (she even wrote a sentence in her book that caused me to gasp in horror:  she doesn’t like sweets and desserts and never eats them.  Ever.  Except for the occasional donut.)  So I think there is not one recipe that she included that I would ever attempt to make, and that is generally the fun of culinary memoirs—you find good recipes and know the context for them.  Her comfort food tends to be very spicy red sauces on pasta.  Her writing also is without a sense of humor and tends to be very earnest.  I find her nonfiction to be very pleasant and interesting; she just isn’t my kindred spirit.

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan.  This first novel was a very entertaining read.  I began it with a bit of skepticism, as it seemed t might be a little lighter than I like, and it was relatively light, but also funny and well-done.  Alice is a mother of three in New Jersey and has to find a full-time job, since her husband was recently downsized at his big law firm.  She gets a job at a huge corporation that is planning on opening up virtual reading rooms; this company is a nightmare of corporate speak and acronyms and twentysomethings forcing Alice to be enthusiastic and join in the groupspeak and be available at all times.  Alice is a good sport about it at first, since she is happy to be back at work, but tensions escalate both at home and at the office.  It reminded me of a Liane Moriarty novel, only based in NJ instead of Australia. I recommend it.

100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write by Sarah Ruhl.  The word that came to mind while I was reading these essays is delightful.  As an essayist, Ruhl has a great voice—she is funny and wry and very thought-provoking.  I do not know much about theater and drama issues, but she’s so good an essayist that that didn’t matter.  These essays are about plays and the theater and the audience, but also about being a working mother in general and a working playwright mother at that.  It was an enjoyable read and I hope she writes more.


Elisabeth Ellington said...

Yay for 100 Essays, one of my top 5 fave books from last year. I am still not even sure what I found so compelling about the book, as I know little about theater and don't really care either. But it just didn't matter. Such a smart and interesting book. I have been avoiding A Little Life because I don't know if I can handle the abuse parts. I deal with a lot of trauma in my daily life and frankly try hard not to seek it out in my reading life! I doubt I ever read the Ferrante series. I'm a bit perplexed by the buzz there as well, so I will be interested to read your thoughts as you continue the series.

Judith Ross said...

Well... I didn't get the fuss about the Elena Ferrante series either. Something about the voice didn't entice me... My friend, Diana, who grew up in Italy loves the series. I imagine that these were not originally written in English and I've noticed that I often find that the voices of narrators who have been translated into English sometimes feel off or cold to me.

And I also read "A Little Life." Agreed it is a very magnetic read. I honestly don't know how you managed it on the train because I was sobbing in a couple of places. Unlike "A Little Life," Richard Flanagan's "The Narrow Road to the Deep North" didn't just make the Booker short list, it won the Booker and I have no reservations about calling it a masterpiece. It makes the reader feel the brutality of war and it builds to a couple of particularly rewarding and unforgettable moments -- one of which includes an amazing discourse on love. Read it and weep!