My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels) by Elena Ferrante Review

ferrante
Title: My Brilliant Friend
Author: Elena Ferrante 
Translator: Ann Goldstein
Country: Italy
Pages: 331
Year published: 2011
My rating: ★★★★★

I spent the last week of June and part of July engulfed in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Tetralogy and I have to admit it was one of the best months of my life, reading-wise.

The Ferrante phenomenon needs no introduction, but I somehow put off embracing it. Maybe it was because the over 1,400 pages require a big commitment. However, once I did start reading, I was mesmerized and couldn’t put the books down. For over two weeks, I felt like I lived in Napoli and I became so close to the characters that they became almost like a family. With every chapter, I felt a little bit of sorrow because I didn’t want the book to end. When I finally finished all four books, I felt like an orphan. I then learned that an HBO series was in the making and that consoled me a bit.

Even though it might sound like I got way too involved in this, the way Ferrante writes makes you want the story to go on forever. I have rarely encountered such a powerful way of creating entire lives and worlds out of nowhere. The story of  Elena (Lenu) and Rafaella (Lila) is the most powerful rendition of female friendship I have ever read. It’s actually impossible to describe the book in a way that can do it justice. One has to read it to notice the nuances, the depth, and the intricacies of a relationship that spans half a century.

The setting of the novel is Napoli, and the city is almost like a character itself. When I finished the novel, I felt like I had just come back from an extended trip to Italy, which is remarkable, as few books can make you feel that way. I won’t give out any plot clues here, as this is not actually a review of the book, but more of a review of how going through the mammoth novels made me feel.

Ferrante touches cords in a way that I have yet to encounter in contemporary fiction. Even though the narrator is Lenu, the character that shines most is her brilliant friend, Lila, a remarkable woman that is so well-portrayed readers may be convinced she actually exists in flesh and bone. A complicated, multi-faceted human being, Lila is the embodiment of every intelligent woman who hasn’t fulfilled her true potential because of external factors.

She has a larger-than-life personality and while she’s a loyal friend, she brings an element of toxicity into every relationship that is ultimately destructive. Such complex characters are rare to find in fiction, but Ferrante writes so powerfully and convincing that Lila mesmerizes readers while the pages fly, only to linger in their mind when well after they reach the end.

As I said, finishing the books left me in a state of loss and now I find it very difficult to find something as good to read. I can only hope the future HBO series does a good job at capturing the essence of the novels so I can relive this masterful story once again.

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Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout Review

elizabeth strout
Title: Anything Is Possible
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Country: USA
Pages: 254
Year published: 2017
My rating: ★★★★☆

Every time I go through a reading slump I feel that a book of short stories is just the kind of kick I need to get the wheels moving again. Life (and let’s admit it, a bit of uncharacteristic gaming frenzy) got in the way for the past month or so, and I turned to my TBR list in search for a new book to read in one sitting.

I read “Olive Kitteridge” a couple of years ago and I liked both the construction and the writing, so I went ahead and started “Anything Is Possible.” Four hours later, I was done and mesmerized by the feeling of immersion I had. It was like I was teleported to the small town of Amgash, Illinois, where time has another dimension and people with apparently normal appearances have heartbreaking stories that haunt them from the inside.

The short-stories are not connected by a single character as they were in “Olive Kitteridge,” but they still feature multiple interconnections. Sorrows and fears abound in the rendition of the lives of a former farm owner turned school janitor after his farm burns to the ground, a local woman who grew up as an outsider and managed to become a successful writer, her recluse brother who fights his demons all by himself, a perverted husband who engages in voyeurism and illicit sexual relationships while his wife turns a blind eye, and more.

“No one should be in a room with a man who’s at the end of his rope.”

The writing is fabulous, with sentences carefully constructed and polished to perfection. There’s not a single cliche in sight, and each of the short plots is so well-developed that you go from one story to another with the confidence something even better awaits just around the corner. The stories are incredibly varied thematically, have amazing depth, and each of them has closure, something that would certainly appeal to those readers who don’t cope too well with open endings.

After I finished the book, I found out that this is actually a sequel to “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” which I haven’t read. My appreciation for the writing grew even more, as you can definitely read “Anything Is Possible” as a stand-alone book and never know it draws on characters featured in another book. The book is real and powerful, and the vulnerability of the characters is incredibly raw and well-captured. A real treat.

 

 

 

 

A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray Book Review

history of britain
Title: A History of Britain in 21 Women
Author: Jenni Murray
Country: UK
Pages: 227
Year published: 2016
My rating: ★★★☆☆

From Boudicca to Nicola Sturgeon, the rainy territory currently known as the UK has had its fair share of women that were ballsy enough to challenge male domination. “A History of Britain in 21 Women” by Jenni Murray examines the achievements of, you guessed, 21 of the individuals who left a mark on British history and society despite being born with what was (and sometimes still is) considered second-class genitalia.

Some of the women portrayed in the book are Oscar-level famous, such as Elizabeth I and Margaret Thatcher, while others are less so, which makes for a very balanced read. Some of the chapters were rather boring because they covered facts most people have read before, but others taught me things I didn’t know.

The complete list comprises Boudicca, Aphra Behn, Elizabeth I (this chapter will also feature Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots), Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, Constance Markievicz, Nancy Astor, Ada Lovelace, Caroline Herschel, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst, Gwen John, Rosalind Franklin, Ethel Smyth, Margaret Thatcher, Nicola Sturgeon, Mary Quant, Barbara Castle and Mary Somerville.

While the subject is highly attractive to anyone interested in history and feminism, I was a little disappointed by the way the way the book was constructed. Firstly, I understand that the choice of personalities to include was a highly personal one for the author, as she mentions in the beginning, but to write something like this and leave out names like Florence Nightingale, Queen Victoria, or George Elliot seems a bit odd.

Next, don’t expect a coherent read – this is not an in-depth analysis of the lives and achievements of these women. It couldn’t be so, taking into account the fact that there are 21 chapters plus introduction and postface and the entire book has 227 pages. The entries read more like blog posts, with brief introductions about the personality and question intertwined with highly personal remarks from the author. You can actually feel how Jenni Murray is star-struck by some of these women, so a couple of entries read like posts on a fan blog.

All in all, it’s not a bad book if you’re interested in learning more about (some of) the women who shaped Britain, but this is a rather basic read. I suppose it would be a good introduction to the subject for high-school level.

Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey – ARC Review

whistle in the dark emma healey
Title: Whistle in the Dark
Author: 
Country: UK
Pages: 304
Year published: 2018
My rating: ★★★☆☆

For some reason or another, I haven’t got round to read”Elizabeth Is Missing,” even though I heard good things about it. And I’m not sure I will read it now that I’ve finished Emma Healey’s “Whistle in the Dark,” which is due in May.

This is not a bad book, but it was a bit difficult to follow, mostly because of lots of unnecessary digressions and I feel it should have been a lot shorter. The characters seem forced and by the end, I couldn’t say I cared about what happened to them too much.

This is the book blurb on Goodreads:

“Four missing days. Could you cope with not knowing?

Jen’s 15-year-old daughter goes missing for four agonizing days. When Lana is found, unharmed, in the middle of the desolate countryside, everyone thinks the worst is over. But Lana refuses to tell anyone what happened, and the police draw a blank. The once-happy, loving family return to London, where things start to fall apart. Lana begins acting strangely: refusing to go to school, and sleeping with the light on.

As Lana stays stubbornly silent, Jen desperately tries to reach out to a daughter who has become a stranger.”

It sounds more interesting than the book actually is. The story is not so much about Lana, the missing teenager, but about Jen, her hapless mother, who tries in vain to reconnect with her daughter. The feeling I got was that this reconnection was mission impossible, not because of the incident that led to Lana’s disappearance, but because the connection wasn’t there in the first place.

Lana is a teenager who struggles with depression and wants to kill herself. She mentions this to her mother in the most peculiar moments, casually, as she was talking about what takeaway to get for dinner. Jen is obviously worried and does her best to get to the bottom of the problem, but fails because she is too normal a woman to deal with this sort of mental health issue. Healey did a good job of describing the mother-daughter dynamics but somehow failed to make me care about either of them.

The flatness of the story is what ruins what it could have been a great rendition of being a mother of a troubled teenager / the daughter of a run-of-the-mill mother. As someone who was raised in a family where no one besides them suffered from depression in their life and knows first-hand how it feels like to be brushed off as “difficult,” I figured Lana would be developed into a more complex character. That didn’t happen, and by the middle of the book, I got bored with all the angst that seemed somehow forced.

The ending was the best part of the book, but even though it wasn’t predictable, I was still left with a “meh” feeling. I loved the writing at the end, as it was more powerful than the rest and it somehow made it up for a book that felt like going on forever.

*I was sent a copy of this book for my independent honest review from the publishers.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain Review

quiet the power of introverts
Title: “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”
Author: Susan Cain
Country: U.S.A.
Pages: 337
Year published: 2012
My rating: ★★★★☆

All my life, I have felt a bit of an outsider. I was the odd one out in my family, then at school, then at uni, and I still am at 34. Growing up, I had always noticed that I wasn’t like other people, so I was convinced there was something wrong with me. I then discovered that I had a lot in common with a particular type of character in books, and then with a specific sort of silent, creative, somewhat deep and spiritual people. I wasn’t broken, I was an introvert.

“Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.”

I read “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain in 2013. Even though I had dabbled in books and studies about introverts before, this was the reading that I believe sums up perfectly what it is to be an introvert and how the world perceives them. It challenges social behaviours and norms that favour extroverts. It offers advice for people like me who are highly introverted, and it was the book that finally convinced me to stop trying to act more like an extrovert (something I was doing without much success, might I add) and accept myself for who I am.

“The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic. They dislike small talk. They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive. They dream vividly, and can often recall their dreams the next day. They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions–sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments–both physical and emotional–unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss–another person’s shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.”

This paragraph is a very accurate description of what it feels like to be an introvert. If you’re not one of them, it may be difficult to comprehend how the world around us puts a strain on our wellbeing, simply because we’re offered fewer opportunities to reach our true potentials.

“There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”

Most of the people who ever knew me noticed how little I talk. It’s not something difficult to notice because when small talk fills you with a sense of desperation, you don’t find gossiping particularly attractive, you don’t like to talk on the phone, and generally only open your mouth to communicate what needs to be communicated in as few words as necessary, people will indeed feel the need to hear your voice more often. Except I don’t feel like using my voice more often. Give me a blank Word page and I’ll tell you my opinions, but otherwise, no thank you.

“Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness- is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”

There are people who can’t express themselves orally, and it’s not fair for society to treat them as less than. It’s not that we don’t have opinions or we’re not funny (some of us will crack you up actually), but since introverts don’t find it comfortable to speak too much in general and dread talking to people they don’t know well, the general consensus is that we’re boring individuals, wallflowers whose existence is rather pointless. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, and Susan Cain elaborates on the subject brilliantly.

 “Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to.”

Introverts have a hard time dealing with the fear of missing out. For example, I have only been on a night out to the club once in my life, and it was a horrible experience. When I travel, I only go to museums and other attractions where they sell tickets, and eat street food and very rarely muster up the courage to try a restaurant where you have to talk to people and have your food brought to the table. I don’t interact with locals if it’s not necessary, even though I find foreign cultures fascinating. I don’t have what you’d call a social life, and I have never stopped to pet a cute puppy in the park, even though small dogs melt my heart.

You would see why from time to time I’d panic over the fact that my life goes by and I am a mere spectator. The thing is, I am actually comfortable and happy the way I am, but society taught me that you’re supposed to do things a certain way, and I don’t always have the strength to ignore the noise and enjoy being myself. “Quiet” taught me that it’s all right to feel like this – accepting who I am is a process, and it involves dealing with a mix of fears and emotions that are often difficult to juggle. Being hard on yourself never helps. The quote below should be pinned to every introvert’s fridge:

“So stay true to your own nature. If you like to do things in a slow and steady way, don’t let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy depth, don’t force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single-tasking to multi-tasking, stick to your guns. Being relatively unmoved by rewards gives you the incalculable power to go your own way.”