Rainy weekend reads in brief

Last weekend we had lots of fun plans but we were feeling a little under the weather, so when it pretty much rained non-stop we took advantage and just stayed at home. For Tim that meant playing computer games (mostly Elite: Dangerous). For me it meant reading. I got through four and a half books. Which sounds like a lot for two days, but it includes two graphic novels and a very slim collection of short stories, so I think that reveals how much time we actually spent watching TV (mostly Legion, which is nightmarish but also excellent, and confusing). As reading lots in quick succession makes it harder to write in-depth reviews, I’ll do brief ones instead.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is the third of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which began with My Brilliant Friend, and that means I now only have one instalment left to read in the saga of Elena and Lila. With recent(ish) revelations about the true identity of Ferrante (a nom de plume) it’s more tempting than ever to confuse her with narrator Elena, who begins this book as a successful author about to get married. Her childhood best friend Lila, meanwhile, is at a very low ebb, working her hands to shreds in a sausage factory owned by a rich friend of the Solara brothers, who have terrorised the neighbourhood since they were boys. As with every part of their story, Elena and Lila switch fortunes and switch from close, regular contact to spending long months apart.

The writing is, as ever, beautiful. I marked so many great quotes as I read. This book explores marriage, motherhood, family and whether or not anyone can, or should, escape their roots. Elena is torn between the cultured elegance of her new in-laws and the promise of a life far from Naples, and the importance of telling the truth and siding politically with the family and friends of her childhood. Lila is, as ever, fierce and demanding, making life decisions that Elena sometimes struggles to understand. I am looking forward to, and also sad already about, reading the final book in the series.

“How many who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled…The old neighbourhood, unlike us, had remained the same. The low grey houses endured, the courtyard of our games, the dark mouths of the tunnel, and the violence. But the landscape around it had changed. The greenish stretch of the ponds was no longer there, the old canning factory had vanished. In their place was the gleam of glass skyscrapers, once signs of a radiant future that no-one had ever believed in.”

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There’s nothing wrong with me that I can fix

will-graysonWill Grayson, Will Grayson
by John Green and David Levithan

This was my “a random book” selection for the Books on the Nightstand Book Bingo. I even closed my eyes. I had intended to read it for Banned Books Week back in September, but that fell while we were on holiday and I read all of half a book all week. I’m glad I came up with another excuse to read it before too long as it’s a really lovely book.

The premise sounds a little odd, so don’t let this put you off. Two teenage boys called Will Grayson meet by chance in a Chicago porn shop. The chapters are alternately narrated by the two Wills, and are written alternately by John Green and David Levithan, two big names in young adult fiction.

The first Will we meet is best friends with Tiny Cooper, who is not just gay but ostentatiously super-camp – so camp that he’s writing a musical about his own life that he wants the high school to help him produce. Will has lost some friends over standing by this friendship and is feeling anxious about that, but he still has Tiny’s friends from the Gay–Straight Alliance – Gary, Nick and Jane – to hang out with, even if he is possibly the only straight one in the alliance (he’s not sure about Jane).

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Her compressed and coded thoughts exploded between them

in certain circlesIn Certain Circles
by Elizabeth Harrower

I first heard about Elizabeth Harrower in a New Yorker article a couple of years ago that celebrated the republication of the elderly Australian author’s works. It included the intriguing detail that this would be the first opportunity to read her fifth novel, In Certain Circles, because back in 1971 the author decided at the last moment not to proceed with its publication.

There is no obvious clue to what Harrower could have disliked about her work, as this is a tremendously well written novel. Perhaps she didn’t like its negative tone, because this is not an uplifting read. It is deeply sad, but not due to big disastrous events. Its sadness is the type that comes from life’s disappointments, poor decisions that are only revealed to have been wrong several years later.

It doesn’t start out with an especially sad tone. When we meet main character Zoe Howard she is 17, fully aware of her beauty and privilege, living as she does at the opulent end of Sydney Harbour. Her older brother Russell was a POW during the war, forever changing his outlook on the world and the circles he wants to move in. He introduces her to his friends Anna and Stephen Quayle, siblings who were orphaned and left in the hands of a poor abusive uncle. Despite their very different circumstances, the four connect in a way that keeps their lives bound together far beyond Russell and Stephen’s shared university course.

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Recent reads in brief

I seem to have been reading so quickly for a few weeks there that I am way behind on reviews again, so here are a few quickies.

lifeboatThe Lifeboat
by Charlotte Rogan

This is the story of Grace, survivor of a 1914 ocean liner disaster. We learn at the start that she survived for three weeks in a lifeboat and is now facing trial for her life. She narrates the story of the shipwreck and Lifeboat 14, gradually revealing the crime she now stands accused of.

Most of the boat’s occupants are upper class women, and as such practical matters quickly fall to a small number of characters. Grace is young, recently married to a rich man, but her background is murky, as are her actions. Throughout a fairly suspenseful, exciting story she muses on matters of guilt and innocence, on character traits and social status. She watches alliances being formed, gossip spreading, moments of human strength and weakness. But ultimately Grace is a frustrating narrator. She rarely places herself in the story, and when she does her position is often unclear. Is she as weak and on the fence as she seems or is it an act? The whole narrative is being written as a piece of evidence for her lawyers, so she has a clear motive to paint her actions whiter than they perhaps were. I like ambiguity and unreliable narrators, but I found the hints at Grace’s unreliability were a little too hidden. And for a lot of the start of the novel I found the uselessness of the majority of the women incredibly annoying.

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No, sitting in a cold dirty hole was not awesome

anyas-ghost-coverAnya’s Ghost
by Vera Brosgol

This is a sweet, honest and spooky tale told in stylish graphic novel form. It’s one of a handful of comics I added to my Christmas wishlist on the back of Googling something like “best comics by women”, so it was a bit of a gamble, but one that paid off.

Anya is in many ways an ordinary American teenager – she only has one close friend, Siobhan, and she’s given up on ever being popular, but she worked hard to hide her Russian accent and chooses her clothes carefully so that at least she isn’t a target for bullies. She worries about her body, about turning into her frumpy mother, about ever attracting the attention of hunky star of the school basketball team Sean. Normal. Until she falls down a well and finds the ghost of a girl who died 90 years ago and is longing for a friend.

The ghost makes for an interesting new friend – one who can spy on people for Anya and wholly accepts Anya’s word on what’s cool. (Incidentally, I personally think Anya’s taste rocks based on the posters in her bedroom: Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura, Metric, the Shins, Weezer…Pretty excellent.) However, the ghost is not an entirely benevolent force.

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The unreliable measuring device of words

the story of a new nameThe Story of a New Name
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is book two of the famed Neapolitan Novels, which started with My Brilliant Friend. This review does contain spoilers for the first book, which I also highly recommend. Arguably you could come to this book cold – everything you need to know from book one is repeated – but you’d be missing out on a key part of the experience in my opinion.

Elena and Lila are on the verge of adulthood. Married at 16, Lila is gradually realising that marriage is not a quick fix to make her brother rich, and that being married to someone she doesn’t love is fine until she does fall in love.

For Lila, marrying Stefano, the grocer, was supposed to be the lesser of two evils – her other rich suitor in book one being Marcello Solara – but either way Lila is tied up with the dangerous Solara family and not in the powerful position as one of their wives. Did she make the right choice? She spends frivolously and flirts with both Solara brothers despite her husband’s violent temper. Has she shut down all true feeling? She is smart and aware, surely she knows the dangerous ground she is treading?

“She was beautiful and she dressed like the pictures in the women’s magazines that she bought in great numbers. But the condition of wife had enclosed her in a sort of glass container, like a sailboat sailing with sails unfurled in an inaccessible place, without the sea.”

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But I want to look like this

never goodnightNever Goodnight
by Coco Moodysson

This graphic novel is set in 1982 and tells the story of three young girls who start a punk band. If that sounds oddly familiar, it may be because Coco Moodysson’s husband, Lukas Moodysson, adapted it into his 2013 film We Are the Best! (It’s an excellent film, I highly recommend it.) Having seen the film first, I was initially confused by some of the differences I found in the book but I’m trying not to compare the two.

12-year-old Coco lives with her divorced mother and her 17-year-old sister Magda. Their mum’s a bit of a party animal and gives the girls a lot of freedom. Coco’s best friend since third grade is Klara. Klara’s big sister Matilda (her age is never given but it’s implied she’s very close in age) often hangs out with them, and the three of them have decided to start a punk band. None of them can play an instrument but it’s punk, so that doesn’t matter.

The story is about female friendship first and foremost, touching on a few coming-of-age moments such as trying alcohol and starting to see parents as human beings. These girls have turned to punk because they are outsiders by nature, and they’re proud of it. They’re scathing of mainstream music and they talk about politics and environmental issues. The day they first heard the Clash they all cut their hair into spikes and dyed it black. But they’re also a little socially awkward, reliant on each other because they can’t really talk to anyone else.

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We were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us

my-brilliant-friendMy Brilliant Friend
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

I had read conflicting reviews of this book, so I’d put it to one side for a while. But then along came the Books on the Nightstand Summer Bingo, with that classic square “A random book from a shelf”. So I stood in front of the TBR shelves, closed my eyes, waved my hand around, and lo and behold this was what I picked out.

The framework is the story of two girls’ friendship in Naples in the 1950s, but through Elena and Lila we really get to know a whole neighbourhood and all the minutiae of money, class, society and education that will affect the lives of everyone born there.

To begin with Elena and Lila are not all that different. Elena, who narrates the story, is the daughter of a porter at the city hall, while Lila is daughter of a shoemaker. Elena admires Lila from a young age and so wants to be her friend that she hangs around nearby, playing with her doll at the same street corner, until Lila has tested her bravery enough times to form a lasting bond.

“Up or down, it seemed to us that we were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us yet had always been waiting for us, just for us…Adults, waiting for tomorrow, move in a present behind which is yesterday or the day before yesterday or at most last week: they don’t want to think about the rest. Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now: the street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this.”

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It became frightening to step back onto firm ground

getting-the-pictureGetting the Picture
by Sarah Salway

When new publisher Dean Street Press offered up any of their books for review, I picked this one partly because the synopsis sounded good but mostly because they had a quote from Neil Gaiman on the cover. Not the greatest reason but I think it worked out.

The book opens with Maureen accompanying her model friend Pat to a photographer’s studio. Maureen is married with a young child and the photographer, Martin, specialises in nude portraits – tasteful ones, but nudes all the same – so Maureen is nervous to be there but undeniably attracted to Martin. Cut to 40 years later and Martin is moving into a retirement home. He writes a letter to Maureen to tell her that he picked the same home that her husband George is in, because he wants to finally understand why she went back to her husband after their affair ended.

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A gleam of light in the impenetrable mystery

The Little PrinceThe Little Prince
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
translated from French by Katherine Woods

This is my first read for Classics Club and it may have been an odd place to start, or maybe a very good place. I’m not sure. It certainly wasn’t the book I expected and yet, thinking about it, I really should have known exactly how it would be.

First of all, it’s a children’s book, which I knew, but so many adults rave about it that I suppose I thought it wouldn’t read quite so very much like one. Also, it was written in the 1940s and has the moralising tone to suit, though it’s an unusual set of morals that it’s selling.

The story is wonderful, by which I mean both that it’s lovely and that it’s full of wonder. A young pilot crashes his plane in the Sahara Desert and there meets and befriends an alien who has travelled to many worlds. The alien, the little prince of the title, tells the pilot about his home world and his travels and the life lessons he has learned.

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