THE STORY OF A NEW NAME

SOANN

I love these books but this cover is so random

The Story of a New Name
by Elena Ferrante

Have you ever had a friend—someone you’ve known for a long time–whose life, for better or for worse, has diverged dramatically from your own and you’ve thought: that could have been me? If only I’d done one thing differently, maybe I would have ended up like her. Or maybe you’ve been in a relationship where it seemed as though every time one of you succeeded it doomed the other, like there was only enough in the well of good fortune for one of you.

In the second of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, The Story of a New Name, the two protagonists, Elena and Lila, enter their late adolescence and early adulthood with lives, once so similar, on very different paths. (Warning: The rest of this post has some spoilers from the first book in the series, but not this one) At 16, Lila marries one of the neighborhood’s wealthier men, the local grocer. Without the education that her friend Elena continues to receive, it appears that the marriage is Lila’s best option for escaping her family’s poverty and abuse. That theory is quickly dismantled. Meanwhile, although she has struggles of her own, Elena goes on to achieve academically and garner an education far beyond that of anyone else in her community.

Both women have their moments of soaring joy and plummeting disappointment, but never at the same time. The universe seems to have only enough good will for one girl at a time. Or is there more free will, maybe even ill will, at work? Though never verbalized, the girls have always harbored a strong sense of competition and as much as they wish for each other’s happiness, they wish for their own more. As her situation devolves further, Lila’s actions become more irrational to the point of pathological, but there’s so much desperation behind her behavior that one can understand how it is hard to be generous when one has so little to give.

In the first of these books, we see Italy’s economic growth of the 1950s and 60s trickle into the girls’ poor neighborhood and we watch how this affects its residents. In this book, each of the two girls seems to represent a version of the changing country. Although Lila is the first to benefit from the amenities of an advanced, wealthier Italy, ultimately her traditional choices keep her tied to an old way of life. Yet Elena, more rational and pragmatic, blossoms into a representation of a new, more modern version of Italy.

I want both characters to succeed, even if one is a little harder to love. I can’t help but feel for the rougher Lila and I found myself circling back to a moment from the first book that seemed to change everything for her. It is at the end of the fifth grade, when both girls are invited to take the admissions exam for middle school, an unusual step within their community. After some debate, Elena’s parents agree to let her take the test and Lila’s do not. From there, their trajectories seem to be set on divergent paths that read like a feminist tragedy.

It’s stomach churning to consider: if this one decision by Lila’s parents did change the course of her life, how tenuous life is. I’m not convinced that this is what Ferrante is trying to say, especially given some of the promise that fills the final pages of this book, but thus far her heroines seem to be having trouble sharing the glory.

AN UNNECESSARY WOMAN

UnnecessaryAn Unnecessary Woman
by Rabih Alameddine

Some time ago, a kind, bookish friend sent me a copy of An Unnecessary Woman. When someone is thoughtful enough to send a book my way, particularly one that is so well suited to me, I usually prioritize the read. But for a variety of logistical reasons too mundane to list here, it’s taken me a long time to get to this one, a fact I would rue if the timing of this read–as my last book of 2014—hadn’t turned out to be a perfect little bow to tie up the year.

Living in a society that doesn’t always protect its women and a city that’s been devastated by decades of war, Aaliyah Saleh is a 72-year old Beiruti woman who has created a fortress out of literature. For 50 years Aaliyah ran a bookstore and in her spare time, she translates works of significant, difficult and sometimes obscure fiction into Arabic.

Though she has good reason to be guarded and reclusive, Aaliyah has taken this whole “life lived through literature” thing a step too far. (And if I’m calling her out on that, you know it’s bad.) You see, Aaliyah lacks connection to others, depriving her of not only the basic human need for contact and engagement, but by buttressing herself from the world, she’s also deprived others of the gifts she has to give through her life’s work: her translations. Good old Aaliyah has held on tight to her grumpy assertions and holier-than-thou attitudes, but fortunately for her and us, that finally changes.

So while this is a book about many things: literature, religion, gender roles, war, Islam, the Middle East, the history of Beirut, and a lot more, when I closed the book’s back cover and set it down, I decided this is also a book about letting go.* In its lovely and cathartic ending, we see how even the most immoveable among us can liberate herself from old ways and notions. And by doing so, she can enjoy freedom and possibilities of which she was never even aware.

What a perfect message for the year’s end. And if that wasn’t serendipitous enough, for Christmas I received the absolute most perfect read to begin a new year: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Maybe you’ve heard of it, or perhaps even read it; the super-cute Marie Kondo is a force of nature, radicalizing the way her Japanese counterparts organize their homes (and thus their lives) and she’s sold over two million copies of her book internationally. Even a quick glance at the section headings (“Sorting papers: rule of thumb – discard everything” and “Unread books: ‘sometime’ means ‘never’) had me giggling with glee and revisiting my family tree to see how Marie and I might be distant relations. This resolution-worthy selection comes to us thanks to Supportive Brother-in-Law, who knows me too well. More on tidying up soon …

*Disclaimer: This book may have nothing to do with letting go and I have simply not yet deprogrammed after my Frozen-themed Christmas holiday.

 

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY MOTHER

Autobio of MotherThe Autobiography of My Mother
by Jamaica Kincaid

This little book showed up in my mailbox recently courtesy of our favorite patron of the arts, my father. He’d heard Jamaica Kincaid speak recently (give it up for the Chicago Humanities Festival) and he liked her and thought I would too. The book’s equivocal title clues us in that this is not, in fact, an autobiography or a memoir or even a biography, but rather the fictional, first-person narrative of Xuela, a Dominican woman whose mother dies in childbirth. The loss of a mother she never knew shapes Xuela’s life and their two stories become intermingled in her mind.

Although this book is considered a novel, I would categorize it as being closer to a long-form poem. The writing is lyrical and elliptical, so those fully drawn characters and clever plots that I like to latch on to in most novels were missing here. But while I was in the beginning stages of this book, I happened to read A.O. Scott’s review of the film adaptation of Wild, which I believe opened this weekend (yay!).

Here’s what Scott had to say about Wild, the movie. “In its thrilling disregard for the conventions of commercial cinematic storytelling, ‘Wild’ reveals what some of us have long suspected: that plot is the enemy of truth, and that images and emotions can carry meaning more effectively than neatly packaged scenes or carefully scripted character arcs.”

Now as someone that fully enjoys a good, neatly packaged scene, not to mention a carefully scripted character arc, Scott’s comments could have caused me some consternation. But reading them when I did–while still in the early pages of Kincaid’s book–instead I took them as a measure of unsolicited enlightenment. I realized that this book runs closer to the short-form storytelling of a film, rather than the more expansive style of a novel, and so I read it with an eye toward those images and emotions that Scott mentions, accepting that it would be a different reading experience from the typical novel.

What I found was a story operating in the sensory, which clicked when I read these lines toward the end: “It is sad that unless you are born a god, your life, from its very beginning, is a mystery to you … Who you are is a mystery no one can answer, not even you.” Xuela’s story, being that of a Dominican woman in a time period left ambiguous (but probably somewhere around the first half of the 20th century), is ultimately a story of the victors and the vanquished, although Xuela refuses to be one of the vanquished, putting down stakes where she can: with her body and the physical world around her. For that is what you do when you’re left with very little that’s yours, you take what is tangible.

Up Next: The Berkeley Public Library (possibly my favorite institution in the world) informs me that my next book is in transit. Finally! I won’t tell you what it is, but I’ll give you a hint: when I first put my name on the book’s hold list, there were 132 people ahead of me and it was just named one of the NYT’s 10 Best of 2014. Any guesses?

 

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU

H Halloween

Z Halloween

Everything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng

(Note: This book has nothing to do with Halloween, but accompanying pictures were too cute to ignore)

The surface story of Everything I Never Told You is a mystery. It is the spring of 1977 and sixteen-year old Lydia Lee has been found at the bottom of a lake in her small Ohio town. These tropes may sound familiar but I promise, this book is the farthest thing from formulaic. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this before.

At its core, this is a story about disappointment; the searing, haunting disappointment of having one’s dreams fade away unfulfilled. As a first-generation son of Chinese immigrants, Lydia’s father has never fit in among his white peers, even after marrying a Caucasian woman. Before they met, Lydia’s mother was a science whiz and planned to become a doctor. Neither of their lives has worked out in the ways they wanted, but even more tragic is the alienation they’ve experienced as a result, an alienation from themselves and each other. As the title implies, this is also a story about the tragedy of failing to communicate.

“Geez, T,” you might be thinking, “that sounds like a real buzz kill. I don’t like to read anything depressing.” So yes, this is a sad book; I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you. But it’s good sad. In fact, the small cast of characters is so well wrought and their emotions feel so genuine and true that I found myself whipping through the book, compelled by the tension of their emotional lives. Through gradual reveals that flash back to the characters’ individual histories, their inner tensions are woven into the story’s surface mystery.

Beyond doing a really fine job of telling a story about a family and its failings, Celeste Ng manages to tell a more universal story about the ramifications of institutionalized discrimination. What do people do with their frustrations? If they can’t talk about them, how do they deal? Do they end up expecting more from other people because they’re not satisfied with themselves? For some, they project their quashed hopes onto their children. They begin to conflate their sense of self with their child’s identity. But this desire to want for one’s children what you couldn’t have for yourself can be a dangerous, destructive force. Ng’s powerful depiction reminds us that systems of oppression don’t disappear in one or two generations’ time.

On that happy note …

Next Up: The much-anticipated new release of My Very End of the Universe by hometown hero and old friend, Mr. Chris Bower (and others). Look for an upcoming interview (a first for this blog) with Bower and some other new features in honor of his publication!

EUPHORIA

 

Euphoria

Euphoria
by Lily King

My two favorite things about Euphoria: its great feminist heroine and its beautiful writing.

The story takes place in the Territory of New Guinea in 1933 and is a fictionalized re-imagining of the events–both personal and professional–that unfolded when Margaret Mead and her second and third husbands worked together studying the tribes along the Sepik River. As you might guess, a love triangle and academic wrangling ensued.

Nell Stone (the book’s Margaret Mead stand-in) is an accomplished anthropologist whose success overshadows her two male counterparts. But the reason she’s so successful isn’t because she’s interested in outdoing the men, it’s because of her genuine passion for her field and the fresh, relational (some might say female) perspective she brings to the work. As one of these contemporaries explains, “For so long I felt that what I’d been trained to do in academic writing was to press my nose to the ground, and here was Nell Stone with her head raised and swiveling in all directions.” This is what I think of as the Peggy Olson school of feminism: women characters interesting and strong enough to break barriers simply by being true to themselves and their interests.

But unlike dear Peggy, Nell Stone’s intellect is extremely attractive to her male counterparts. One says, “I loved the sound of our two typewriters; it felt like we were in a band, making a strange sort of music. It felt like I was a part of something, and that the work was important. She always made me feel that the work was important. And then her typewriter stopped and she was watching me. ‘Don’t stop’ I said. ‘Your typing makes my brain work better.’” Pretty hot – huh?

I’ve taken the liberty of disproportionately quoting from the book to demonstrate King’s beautiful, clean writing style. It’s a style in which every carefully chosen word evokes the story’s place and people. I find this kind of writing particularly relaxing to read, almost meditative. It’s how I feel when I read Marilynne Robinson.

Since beginning this blog, there’s been an underlying theme to most of my reading selections: the literary woman-in-a-strange-land genre. I could claim it’s something subconscious (my wanderings through Berkeley certainly constitute anthropological research into the customs of burnt-out baby boomers) but given my process for choosing what I read when, it’s safe to say that my recent reading list has been more arbitrary than one might assume.

That said, my next undertaking should be very, very different from the books I’ve written about up to this point. Coming up to bat is My Struggle, Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard. (That’s book one of six, by the way, though fortunately for all of us he’s still writing them) Knausgaard is an extremely intense Norwegian man whose six-part “autobiographical novel” is the current Literary Big Deal. I can be a little jaded by hoopla but, of course, I’m also intrigued. I’ve heard this book referred to as both “boring” and “Catcher in the Rye for 40 year olds.” I’m banking on the later. You’ll be the first to know.

Karl

Intense Norwegian Man