picosgemeos: (Montanhas)
My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first heard of Elena Ferrante in 2015 in an interivew in the Paris Review. What caught my attention - and which has become a sort of talking point around her - was her wish to remain anonymous and use a pseudonym, despite being considered one of the best contemporary writers working in Italy today. So when my turn came to choose a book for my bookclub, I decided to go with My Brilliant Friend, the first in her Neapolitan tetralogy.

The novel centres around the lives of two girls, Lenu and Lila, born towards the end of the 2nd World War in a poor neighbourhood of Naples, and who are brought up together in a community riddled with tensions, with communists on one side and fascists on the other. In this very male-dominated world, the two friends carve their own particular path with the limited opportunities they are given.

A critic at the London Review of Books described the tetralogy as a nation novel, but seen through "the minutiae of women’s lives", even going as far as calling it the great Italian Novel. What interested me as I read was whether it was a feminist work, in the way the novel explored how the world of men impacted on the world of women, and how these particularly strong and intelligent young women, Lenu and Lila, tried in their own way to overcome the bad cards handed out to them. There's also this really interesting Cinderella motif that holds the story together, which Ferrante twists around for ironic purposes. A good marriage is the only way out for young women in this community, but the "young princes" are hardly a catch. And, in any case, Lenu and Lila want to make it on their own - they want education, independence and their own work to be rewarded. Lenu writes a fairy tale as a young girl, then designs a beautiful pair of shoes when she's older, to help her family's shoe business. There is, of course, a "fairy tale" wedding towards the end. By then the reader knows to expect anything but a happy event.

Ferrante's writing style is sparse and goes against what's thought to be "good" fiction (My Brilliant Friend is almost entirely "told" rather than "shown".) Somewhere in there lies her appeal, I think. My Brilliant Friend divided the members of my bookclub. Some, like myself, thought the storytelling was imaginative and that details rose to the surface and enriched the story (this being Ferrante's secret for ensnaring the reader.) Others couldn't get into her narrative voice, even felt the English translation by Ann Goldstein was awkward throughout.

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picosgemeos: (Montanhas)
A Dark-Adapted EyeA Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ruth Rendell was 15 years old when the Second World War came to an end. Her family's experience of the war coloured many of her novels, including her last novel published before her death, The Girl Next Door, and this one, her first work under her pseudonym Barbara Vine, published in 1986.

She is known for her popular Inspector Wexford series and her psychological crime novels. With Barbara Vine, from what I've gathered, she wanted to focus on how place plays a part in a crime as well as further explore the psychology of families and their secrets. This first Vine novel is also notable for its many autobiographical elements.

Rendell had a particular writing style all her own. Many of her sentences sound like they were written back to front, and in this story in particular it takes a good 50 pages before the plot begins to make some sense. But one thing that's particularly enjoyable in her writing - and which I think she isn't given enough credit for - is how much she explored and knew the different facets of the post-war English psyche. The recreation of life in England during the war years in A Dark-Adapted Eye is faultless, filled with details that only a person who lived through it could remember. She also builds suspense here around the question of "Why", instead of the usual "Who" or "How" of crime fiction, and turns an antagonist into a protagonist by the end of the story, which I imagine is quite difficult to pull off.

The story is told through the point of view of Faith, who recalls how her aunt Vera was one of the last women in Britain tried and hung for murder. Through Faith's memories of the war years, we find out what led Vera to commit her crime and how various secrets in their family may, or may not, have played a part in it.

Don't expect to get all your questions answered in this nicely crafted, compelling read.

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picosgemeos: (Montanhas)
Image by Jiri Siftar

I was in Victoria Park this afternoon to say goodbye to a friend who is returning to Brasil for good on the 17th.

We made plans to meet by the entrance gates, near the pond. While I was standing around waiting for her to arrive, two cyclists collided against each other and crashed onto the pavement. One of them was knocked unconscious.
It all happened so fast. Suddenly people were standing around them - couples with children, a woman with her dog, a gardner in a neon jacket. One of the cyclists got on the phone to ambulance services. Tears were pouring down his face, which he kept trying to wipe away as he spoke on the phone. The other guy, face down on the pavement, started twitching. A woman, holding her toddler daughter in one hand and a scooter in the other, leaned close for a good look. The woman with the dog got closer too; the dog, strangely, wanted to move away.

Staff from the café by the pond ran towards the group. A man berated the cyclist that was on the phone. A couple marching into the park spotted the commotion and decided on a detour - to walk past and also take a good look. I felt disgusted. (Was I any better, though, standing slightly apart and watching everything unfold?)

More people from the café joined the circle. I hoped one of them was a doctor. Someone went to the gates to unlock it so the ambulance could come through. Joggers went by, ignoring everything. The woman with the dog took off her jacket so they could put it underneath the cyclist's head. The man in the neon jacket rubbed the man's back, the others gently tried to turn him on his side. His legs kept kicking; I hoped he wouldn't pass away there and then.

Sirens in the distance, a rapid response ambulance car with four paramedics was about to arrive. The man was sitting up now, cradled by some of the bystanders, half of his face covered in blood. As soon as paramedics had their hands on the man, the crowd dispersed.

'Did he fall off his bike?' I heard someone ask me. It was a little old lady, in a pink crocheted hat and black parka coat, with a Jack Russell Terrier by her side.

'No, he collided against another cyclist,' I told her, going into all the details of what had just happened.

'They go so fast,' she said. 'You are meant to go 5 miles per hour but they always go much faster.'

The Jack Russell Terrier had now decided I was a friend and was jumping on my leg. I bent down to pet him and she told me he was called Milo. We watched as a proper ambulance arrived and the four paramedics cut all the clothes off the cyclist and lifted him completely naked onto a stretcher. They then covered him with a grey blanket and slid him inside the ambulance.

'Do you bring Milo to Victoria Park twice a day?' I asked.

'I've got age against me now,' she laughed. 'I take him mostly to a little square near my tower block but if the day is not wet, like today, then I bring him here for a few hours.' Milo had moved away and was now sniffing the café's garbage bins.

She told me she was born in Bethnal Green and lived all her life there and the furthest she had moved was to Bow. She had been 5 years old when the War happened; she and her sisters were evacuated to Suffolk, to live with a woman nicknamed "Nanny". Her parents stayed behind in London but were luckily not involved in the Bethnal Green tube disaster. However, she had a close call in Suffolk. The village they were staying was near the American base and one Sunday, while they were in chapel, they saw smoke rising from the area where Nanny lived. Someone came running in to tell them that one of the American planes had crashed into Nanny's home - the only thing left was a smouldering fireplace. It turned out that during a reconnaissance flight, the plane's engine malfunctioned. The pilot ejected while aiming for the plane to head into the sea but for some reason it turned itself around and crashed into the village.

We spoke of other things - of Victoria Park's old pagoda, of a rumoured murder on one of the park's bridges, of the lads who used to go around with aggressive dogs and who had suddenly disappeared. We said our goodbyes when my friend arrived; we wished each other a merry Christmas. I found out her name was Rita and that she was going to spend Christmas with her son up in Lincolnshire (and of course Milo was going too) but she was very jealous I was flying the next day to Brasil and it was a shame she couldn't be snuck inside a trunk and go with me.
picosgemeos: (Montanhas)
From [livejournal.com profile] sushidog:

You have a time machine, in which you can make three (and only three) trips. You may use one trip to change something in your own past, one trip to witness a past event, and one trip to change the world. No cheating, any attempts to game the system will dump you in a primaeval swamp with no way back to the future. What do you do with your three trips?

My first trip would be to São Paulo, 1982, September - the month my youngest brother Nicholas was born.  I'd try to stop my parents from giving him the vaccine for whooping cough - the vaccine that gave him a brain lesion and made him a fully disabled person for the rest of his life.  I've always wondered how Nicholas would have turned out if he'd been "normal".  What kind of person would he have become? What kind of profession would he have followed?  And how would that have affected us as a family?

The second trip would be the hardest for me to choose.  Would I travel to The Smiths' first gig? Margaret Atwood's first public reading in a Toronto poetry evening? The arrival of Europeans in the Americas? (Wouldn't it freak them out if they saw me there, standing on the beach beside the natives?) Or perhaps I'd visit one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. I'd probably just let the time machine decide for me.

For my third trip, I'd try to stop Archduke Franz Ferdinand from getting killed.  In theory, that would stop World War I happening as we know it (though maybe war was inevitable?), and consequently Hitler wouldn't have gained the ground to take power, World War II wouldn't have happened, etc.  But, knowing we humans, something as equally as terrible would have taken place and we'd still be in a mess today...

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