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.


by Marilynne Robinson

To describe the premise of the three novels comprising Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series may not inspire you to spontaneously leap out of your seat and rush to (soapbox alert) the nearest local, independent bookstore — but it should. I’m not sure you’ll find three more deftly written meditations on what it means to be alive, with all the beauty and sorrow that the task entails.

In Gilead, the first of the series, an elderly minister named John Ames narrates the book via a letter he is writing to his six-year-old son. Diagnosed with a heart condition, Ames has been told he doesn’t have much time and he wants his little boy to know all the things he may not have a chance to tell him. It is the mid-1950s and Ames is the minister of tiny Gilead, Iowa, a place where he’s lived a simple but lonely existence for most of his life. Lila is the third book in the series and it could be considered a prequel, since it traces the backstory of Ames’ young wife, Lila, from her childhood through her marriage to “the old man,” as she calls him.

I refer to these books as meditations because that it exactly how I experienced them. Each time I read one, I felt as if I were in a trance. Gilead, in particular, read like a chant or a poem. This is not to say there’s anything lightweight about them. It is to say, however, that Robinson’s language takes these stories to a near-spiritual level, which befits the many theological discussions that abound. Can I say that I appreciated the full heft of each of these discussions? Most likely, no. But what I could appreciate was her characters desperate wish to understand the meaning of their existence and the gravity with which they took the job of being alive.

By the time we meet them, Ames and Lila and every one of Robinson’s characters have suffered their own losses and disappointments. It’s painful to witness how raw they’ve been rubbed by life. Yet in a way that only Midwesterners can, they persevere and work to bring meaning to their experiences. Ultimately I think it is the acute precariousness of the characters’ happiness that made the books both lovely and heartbreaking for me.

You may know that the Gilead series is the only work of fiction Robinson has written since her first novel Housekeeping, published in 1980. Like the Gilead books, Housekeeping received a ton of praise and since its publication has gone down in literary annals as a modern classic. The story is right up my alley: a couple of young girls growing up and making their way under unconventional conditions. Take this setup and couple it with my adoration for Robinson’s writing and you’d figure Housekeeping was one of my favorite books, right?

Well, like a lot of the awesome books I’ve read in my life, I first read Housekeeping when I was way too young to get anything out of it, other than the fact that it was supposed to be good. So I gave it another shot a few years ago. Still nothing. Apparently an elderly preacher in 1950s Iowa is more my speed. Maybe you should take everything I’ve said above with a grain of salt.


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Family Life
by Akhil Sharma

Around this time last year, when his semi-autobiographical novel Family Life was published, Akhil Sharma wrote an essay for The New Yorker about the 12 years and 7,000 pages he spent working on this book, a book that ended up being 218 pages. While I wasn’t planning to spend 12 years contemplating what to write about this book, I will say that my thoughts on this one haven’t flowed with the same ease as they often do here.

The word that keeps going around and around in my head is: sad. This is undoubtedly a sad story. The entire book revolves around the consequences of a diving accident experienced by the narrator’s older brother a couple years after their family immigrates to the US from India. The accident leaves the older son brain-damaged and with few resources to care for him, the entire family is thrown into turmoil. What makes the story even sadder is that it is based on Sharma’s own family, who experienced a similar tragedy when he was a child.

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Last weekend, a couple friends asked how I liked Family Life so far. I was about 2/3 of the way through the book and I commented on how very sad the story was, but that I felt I’d just reached a point where a glimmer of hope was starting to shine through. Wrong. It turns out that glimmer is quickly extinguished and the story continues on with more heartache. It probably sounds like I didn’t like the book. Sometimes “like” and “dislike” can be clumsy terms and neither really get to the heart of it. Here’s the more accurate synopsis: I was compelled. Despite the sadness.

When I hear someone say, “I don’t like sad stories,” my head explodes. It boggles my mind to ponder what kind of stories this person could possibly be reading that omit any references to disappointment, loss, heartache, or general tragedy. Without conflict, our stories wouldn’t be particularly interesting. Perhaps what these anti-sad story people mean is that they need their redemption and catharsis.

For those folks and some of you who may be on the fence over this sad issue, here’s a semi-spoiler alert: with the exception of the little glimmer of hope I mentioned about 2/3 of the way through, it is not until the very last line of Family Life that even the possibility of catharsis is presented. From a technical and structural standpoint, I found it deeply admirable that Sharma pulls this off so successfully. It’s definitely a “cool move” as one of my writing teachers used to say.

There’s no pandering here, there are no tidy little bows. It seems that working through 7,000 pages of material (man, I hope he can pull another book or two out of all that) left Sharma with a solid sense of integrity about how he was going to tell this story. And for that, credit is due. I can’t help but think, though, that perhaps for all his cool writerly moves, the result is something cold.

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Brilliant cartoon by Alison Bechdel

                              Brilliant cartoon by Alison Bechdel

My Brilliant Friend
by Elena Ferrante

There are so many different directions I could go with this gorgeous book, but what I keep coming back to is the Bechdel Test. Have you heard of the Bechdel Test? One of my clients introduced it to me recently. Named after the cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, who coined the idea in her 1985 comic Dykes to Watch Out For, the Bechdel Test measures whether a work of fiction features at least two women talking to each other about something other than men.

Now I’ve read my share of books that feature interesting, smart women talking about interesting, smart things, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book before in which two girls’ lives are so singularly driven by their intellect and desire for knowledge. My Brilliant Friend may as well have been written in direct response to the Bechdel Test.

This novel, the first in a series of four, depicts the childhood friendship between Elena, the book’s narrator, and Lila, who come of age in 1950s Naples, Italy. The girls live in a poor neighborhood on the edge of the city from which they never wander. Some of their friends take trips to the beach and other “outings far away,” but “Ours [their parents] weren’t like that, they didn’t have time, they didn’t have money, they didn’t have the desire.” In fact, they aren’t even aware that such a thing as high school exists until Elena’s teachers encourage her to attend.

By this time, Lila, the more naturally gifted of the two girls, has already been constricted to a life of work in the neighborhood, so the promise of higher education is beyond her reach. But it is Lila who continually sparks Elena’s academic pursuits and, although Elena doesn’t understand it at the time, her advanced studies in turn inspire Lila to educate herself so she can keep up with her friend. Their relationship is one of great intellectual stimulation and deep-seated competition – because using their brains is what truly matters to them.

This emphasis on knowledge translates to every facet of their lives. When they first discover Little Women (Jo March being the perfect protagonist for these two), they determine that if they can someday write books like Louisa May Alcott, they will become rich and escape their limited circumstances. To these girls, a life of the mind equals wealth, freedom and romance. As they grow into teenagers, Elena falls in the love with the smartest boy in school with whom “I wished I could talk every day to a boy on that level …”

There’s so much more I could tell you, like how the changes that the girls begin to witness in their neighborhood are a mirror for the changes throughout Italy at the time or how people can’t help but compare Ferrante’s series to that of Karl Ove Knausgaard or how Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym for an anonymous Italian author. But mostly I want to tell you that I loved this book and you’ll probably be hearing more about the other three.

A shout-out to my brilliant friend Justine for recommending it! Thank you!

Until next time, I’d love to hear about your favorite book featuring interesting, smart women?


Dept of Spec

Lover's DictionaryDept. of Speculation
by Jenny Offill


The Lover’s Dictionary
by David Levithan

Back in December, The New York Times told me that Dept. of Speculation was one of the ten best books of 2014. As you know, I’m wont to believe the NYT. So I added my name to the lengthy library hold list, behind a legion of other Berkeley-ites who’d managed to toss aside their copies of the Book Review and rush to their computers faster than I (don’t let the graying peacenik image fool you, they can be an aggressive group when it comes to critically-lauded literature). Now that it’s March, the decks have apparently cleared; Dept. of Speculation arrived this week and a few other selections from the NYT Best Of list are headed my way shortly.

Being a delayed gratification type, this kind of build-up tends to sweeten the pot for me and I cracked open Jenny Offill’s slim little volume with the added enjoyment of knowing I’d had to put in my time on the waiting list. Immediately, the book felt very familiar. Not familiar in a “this author totally knows me” kind of way, but rather, familiar in a “I’ve read this before” kind of way. The other book that came to mind was David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary, another slim little novel with a lot of similarities to Dept. of Speculation.

Both books are novels that are structured like long-form poems, elliptical and lyrical in their narration. Both books use the 2nd person throughout large portions of the story (from DOS: “I remember that day, how you took a $50 cab from work, how you held me in the doorway until I stopped shaking.”) Both books involve similar themes about love, commitment and relationships (and a major plot point I won’t reveal here).

Of the two, I preferred The Lover’s Dictionary. This is not to say I disliked Dept. of Speculation, but I find it interesting that Levithan had written a similar (and in my opinion, more compelling) book a few years back, yet its acclaim seems to have started and ended on my local bookstore’s Staff Picks shelf.

Why had one book received considerable critical praise and the other—as far as my Google machine can tell me—had not? I’m going with snobbery. While David Levithan is a prolific and commercially successful YA author for whom no tears need be shed, his credentials aren’t nearly as literary as those of Jenny Offill. I don’t mention this as a judgment on either writer, each of whom is expressing themself as they best see fit, but I am judging those who judge them. (Apologies for beginning to sound a bit like the “I appreciate that you appreciate me” commercial.)

Tell me I’m crazy, tell me I’m paranoid, tell me I have baggage – I’ll agree with you on every count – but I can’t help feeling a bit disheartened by my assessment. Does this mean I’m planning to nix my NYT Book Review? Negatory, as the kids say. But I will be paying closer attention to the staff picks at my local bookstore.