My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

After years of hearing people recommend it, I finally got around to reading Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first of her Neapolitan novels. Ferrante has a bizarre cult following here in Melbourne and I thought it was high time I jumped aboard the hype train. On a somewhat related note, when did Ferrante become a thing? Was it this year? 2013? Whenever it was, we should have been talking about her sooner.

At its heart, this book tells the story of the tumultuous relationship between two childhood friends, Lila and Elena, as they navigate through adolescence and struggle to break free of the grinding cycle of poverty and isolation generated by the problems of the post-war, post-Fascist Italian state. The two girls live in a rough, violent neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, where money is hard to come by and opportunities for escape are scarce. Growing up on these tough streets, the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists.

The best thing about this book is definitely the characters. The relationship between Elena and Lila is so incredibly fascinating, and both of the protagonists have so much depth and complexity. Their friendship is not an easy one – rather, it is fraught with tension and the two girls are in constant competition, although neither can truly succeed without the other. A friend once said to me that Ferrante ‘cuts to the bone’ and I couldn’t agree more. Acts of terrifying cruelty are balanced by offhand displays of extraordinary kindness to paint a mesmerising portrait of a friendship that is at the same time totally unique and extremely familiar.

I also really like that Ferrante takes almost every conventional literary device and narrative structure, flips it over, and spits it out again. She introduces way too many characters at random, inserts about five different ideas into a single sentence, and the story is not quite chronological. I think that these things would annoy me if anyone else did them, but I found myself admiring Ferrante’s audacity and creativity. Also, I think that Ann Goldstein deserves a big shout-out for her spectacular translation! Often, I think translated novels can sound a bit stilted, but this one reads wonderfully.

Overall, I thought that this book was beautifully-written, compelling, difficult to read at times, and absolutely brilliant. Will I read her other books? Hell yes. Especially after the very classy cliffhanger at the end of this one. Would I recommend this book to other people? Hell yes.

Have you ever read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels? What did you think? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

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My Pig Paulina – Hans Limmer & David Crossley

I don’t usually review children’s books, but I had to make an exception for this one because it’s just TOO DARN CUTE.

The blurb: Angelika lives with her parents and her sister Susi on a beautiful Mediterranean island. She loves roaming the island with her favourite doll, Hippi, and when she adopts a piglet named Paulina, they have lots of fun together! When a farmer wants to take Paulina away, Angelika knows she has to save her best friend. And so begins their adventure…

Originally published in Germany in the 1960s (although recently translated into English), this book wonderfully captures the magic of wandering barefoot through the countryside without a grownup in sight. It made me laugh out loud, feel nostalgic for my childhood, and want to go on a few adventures of my own. Would definitely recommend this book for all the special little ones in your life (especially those aged 3-6).

Have you read My Pig Paulina? What did you think? What are your favourite recent children’s books? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

Tenth of December – George Saunders

So I’m not entirely sure what I just read, but wow… It was good. I think. I’m pretty sure. Yeah.

What drew me to this book was the universal praise it has received. It seems that everyone from Zadie Smith to David Foster Wallace considers Saunders to be some sort of literary god. Even the New York Times (which does not speak in absolute terms very often) has called Tenth of December “the best book you’ll read this year”. My final verdict: the hype is totally deserved.

This book is first and foremost a collection of short stories, each one presenting a different vision of a failing America. Although this sounds very gloomy, this collection is surprisingly charming and the stories all have a lot of heart. In one story, a family member recollects a backyard pole dressed for all occasions; in another, Jeff faces horrifying ultimatums and the prospect of Darkenfloxx™ in some unusual drug trials. While each story is remarkably different, they are all distinctly Saundersian – wryly hilarious, dark, and satirical. None of the protagonists are particularly successful. Most of them aren’t even that likable. But they are oh so wonderfully human. I think that Saunders has this incredible ability to reveal to us what we really are in a way that makes us laugh at first, and then feel sickened.

When reading this collection, the first thing you notice is the language. It seems a little bizarre at first, but you soon get used to Saunders’ extensive use of slang, neologisms, and fake product names. To be honest, I hated it at first, but soon came to appreciate it. I think that it really allows the reader to get inside the protagonists’ heads.

Bizarre writing style aside, I was surprised by how readable this collection is. Saunders actually reminds me a lot of Zizek in the sense that you can read the words on the page very quickly, but after a few pages, you realise that you haven’t fully grasped what has been said. And so you go back and re-read the words and they still don’t fully sink in, but you become more and more convinced that Saunders is definitely not a mere mortal.

Overall, I loved this book. I think I need a little break from Saunders, but I will definitely be going back for more after I have had a little time to digest this one. Would definitely recommend for short story enthusiasts and fans of hardcore literary fiction (especially fans of Donald Barthelme and Jonathan Lethem), although if you are looking for a breezy, straightforward read, Saunders is not your guy.

Have any of you read Tenth of December (or any other Saunders books for that matter)? If so, what did you think? 

~Anna

The Opposite of Loneliness – Marina Keegan

“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life”. 

A few weeks ago, I was speaking to one of my friends about how strange it feels to be graduating soon and in response, she recommended that I read this book. And so I did. And I thought that while flawed, it wonderfully captured the hope, uncertainty, and possibility of my generation.

Marina Keegan graduated from Yale in May 2012 and it seemed that she had a bright future planned out. She had a play that was to be produced at the New York International Fringe Festival and a job waiting for her at the New Yorker. However, five days after her graduation, she died tragically in a car accident. Shortly after her death, her final essay ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’ went viral, receiving more than 1.4 million hits.

The Opposite of Loneliness is a post-humous assemblage of Marina’s essays and stories and explores the universal struggle we all face as we work out what we aspire to be and how we can harness our talents to make an impact on the world.

What I liked about this collection is that Marina doesn’t try too hard to sound older. Rather, she embraces her youth and the result is wonderful – it’s raw, fresh, and authentic. I think that young writers often feel a great deal of pressure to appear older, more sophisticated, more literary. You can tell that Marina grappled with this pressure, but her voice is still distinctly original.

Of course, her writing is not perfect. I felt that she tried a little too hard to be profound at times (some of the lines were very dramatic and felt a little forced) and all the endings were sad. There’s nothing wrong with sad endings, but when every single ending in a collection of stories and essays is sad, it gets a little depressing. I also thought that some of her short stories were a little contrived, although I did enjoy most of her non-fiction, especially her opening essay.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and am sad that I will not get to see Marina develop as a writer. That said however, I think that we all have a tendency to idealise the dead. Last week, when Leonard Cohen passed away, we sold more copies of his CDs in one week than we had in the entire year of 2015. Does this mean that the quality of his music improved overnight? No. It means that people view him differently now that his is dead – their image of him has been softened somewhat around the edges. While Marina was certainly a promising writer, it is important to remember that this collection, in its current form, probably wouldn’t have existed were she still alive.

You can read Marina’s essay ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’ here.

~Anna