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.

FAMILY LIFE

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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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MY BRILLIANT FRIEND

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?

LIFE WOULD BE PERFECT IF I LIVED IN THAT HOUSE

Life+Would+Be+Perfect+CoverLife Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House
by Meghan Daum 

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve decided that (dictionary be damned) perfectionism isn’t really based on the assumption that things are ever going to be exactly perfect; it’s more a pursuit than a quest with an end. Most of us are willing to acknowledge that perfection is mythical and unattainable.

So what exactly is this pursuit of the perfect all about? I think it’s more like a complicated form of rationalizing. We don’t necessarily have to believe that things will ever be truly perfect to remain firmly devoted to the belief that if we can just get a liiiiitttttle bit closer to our ultimate vision, well, then we can at least live with that. We can be more content, we can be happier, even if we can’t reach the zenith. And let’s face it: the pursuit is the real thrill, a thrill that can’t possibly be matched by its outcome. Because within the pursuit lies the potential. Reality often involves some level of disappointment.

Which leads us to the topic of real estate. It’s been an interesting ride for my peers and I, coming-of-adulthood during the recent booms and busts of the housing market. We had all kinds of weird ideas about how and why one should possess their own little corner of the planet. For a certain demographic to which I belong, there was a time when one could have easily mistaken our real life financial transactions for a game of Monopoly. I can remember an actual conversation in which someone declared that by purchasing my condo in 2002, I “had won.” I’ve been all over the game board since then.

For some, housing–whether rented, owned, borrowed or bartered–is a simple matter of economics: a straightforward business transaction and nothing more. My housing has always been more emotionally significant than that. I can probably trace this back to approximately the seventh grade, when I took up residency in my parents’ attic guestroom a la Greg Brady. I could go on at some length about how and why that little garret still ranks as one of my all-time favorite dwellings. I could probably write an entire memoir about the housing in my life and it would come down to the same basic premise that is at the heart of Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House: housing equals identity.

I’m so glad, though, that Meghan Daum saved me the trouble and wrote her housing memoir instead. In fact, it was one of those books that I related to so strongly, I’d almost hesitate to recommend it to anyone else for fear they might not relate and my true insanity will be revealed for once and for all. I’m pretty sure that only a fellow OCDer could truly appreciate the painfully detailed cataloging Daum undertakes over virtually every one of her 18 (yep, I said 18) moves without becoming annoyed. But within the craziness lies a hysterically funny and sharply insightful narrator who isn’t afraid to let us all know how nuts she really is.

Okay, you’ve read the disclosures. Here are the keys. The rest is up to you.

BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS

BTBF Flat

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death & Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
by Katherine Boo

Well, it’s official. I will not be asked to serve on the National Book Award committee anytime soon. I know you’ve been wondering. In fact, when it comes to Behind the Beautiful Forevers, not only am I in disagreement with the National Book Award judges, but I’m also in disagreement with just about every literary award committee on the planet, not to mention every reputable publication that bothers to put out a Best Books of the Year list.

By now you’re probably braced for what I’m about to say: I did not enjoy this book. Now I know I’m a little late to the party on this one, given that it came out a couple years ago and all the hoopla has moved on to other titles. And perhaps the fact that I didn’t rush out to read it right away was an indication, but when Supportive Husband procured a discounted copy a while back, I was more than happy to add it to the pile.

I’ve written previously about the conundrum of deciding when to put a book down and generally speaking, I’ve gotten a lot better about acknowledging when I’m not enjoying something. Yet I still found myself plowing my way through this one even though it wasn’t speaking to me.

I think there were two main reasons for this: 1) the overwhelming acclaim the book and its author have received and 2) the subject matter. Regarding the acclaim, I like to think that by this stage in my increasingly long life I’ve managed to develop a decent amount of critical thinking and feel confident enough in my own judgment that I am free to like or dislike things, regardless of others’ opinions. It looks like I might still have a cool kids complex. The cool kids just so happen to be The National Book Award, The New York Times, The Guardian and other snooty literary bodies. As for the subject matter, I don’t know a lot about India and I definitely know less than that about the slums of Mumbai, so Boo’s book seemed like a good educational opportunity.

And besides, isn’t there something politically incorrect about not liking a critically exalted piece of journalism about people living in a level of poverty that is almost beyond my ability to comprehend? In other words, by rejecting the book, am I rejecting the people it depicts or the issues it raises? The obvious answer is no. What I rejected was the storytelling. It simply didn’t compel me. I wasn’t invested in the people or situations being described because of how the author described them.

But think about it. Are you ever swayed to forge ahead with a book you’re not really enjoying because a lot of smart people liked it and you figure maybe you’re just not getting it? Do you ever read things because it feels like the “right thing to do?” Or because you feel a little bit guilty about everything you have and perhaps reading about those with less somehow relieves that burden? Do you ever feel a certain socio-political pressure in your reading choices? Or perhaps you avoid unpleasant topics altogether when it comes to your reading/leisure time – I can respect that.

(For an amazing piece of journalism that touches on similar themes of poverty and opportunity but had me riveted throughout, check out Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family.)