Monday, May 23, 2016

The Signature of All Things (by Elizabeth Gilbert)

My friend Chris said he was reading and enjoying this, plus I was on the lookout for a book set before 1900 for the Read Harder Challenge, so I did my patented get-a-Kindle-sample-on-my-phone-and-start-reading maneuver. I was immediately hooked, and did the patented must-keep-reading-buy-now-click, as well as the patented tear-through-this-book-in-one-weekend speed read. All patents pending.

It's a sprawling novel that tells the story of Alma, born in 1800, unpretty and brilliant, a botanist with a searing curiosity about the world, who grows up in Philadelphia in the era between the Revolution and the Civil War. It tells the (very compelling) backstory of her father's history. Then some stuff happens -- I don't want to give away where the action takes us or what happens to her, but we follow her into old age and yes, along the way, a lot of stuff happens. 

I was surprised at the quality of the writing from Elizabeth Gilbert -- since she wrote Eat, Pray, Love,  I had preconceived notions of her as more of a "women's contemporary fiction" author rather than a writer of literary fiction. But this novel is really well done, captures the time period well, and if Alma's ambitions and confidence seem a bit anachronistic at times, well, it's not competely preposterous. 

However, one thing is preposterous, and I'm mentioning it in this paragraph so RSS readers avert your eyes, and browser readers highlight to read. Kurt Vonnegut's famous saying is that every character you write should want something, even if it's just a glass of water. Alma's "glass of water" is... frankly ludicrous. If this book had been written by a man, I would have thrown it across the room. Because her life's ambition is to give someone a blowjob. I am not even kidding.

Anyway. I went back to read the discussion during the Tournament of Books 2013, where this book competed. (It got knocked out fairly early. Americanah wasn't on the shortlist. The whole thing was a travesty.)  A lot of people loved it, a lot of people hated it, even on the sentence level -- maybe it was that I read it quickly or that my expectations were low, but none of that bothered me.  Overall, I found it to be a good read and it gets a thumbs up from me!

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (by Elena Ferrante)


My friend aych, Ferrante-enabler, gave me the next volume of the Neapolitain novels and of course, once again, I devoured it. For her, the third was her favorite -- I think I still prefer the second, although the ending of this one is killer and being me, I did enjoy the explicit feminist themes throughout.

I love what Ferrante does with titles -- there is always a twist, where you think the title refers to one thing but at the end it refers to something else. She's good, that Elena Ferrante. And of course, as usual, the end of this one leaves me dying to know what happens next. Aych, where is the fourth volume please.

I feel like I don't want to say too much about this one because spoilers. But I will say that so far I'm really enjoying the series and recommend it to those on the fence about it.

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Monday, May 02, 2016

The Story of a New Name (by Elena Ferrante)

You may remember my opinion of the first book in this series was mixed.  I wasn't going to read the second one, and then my friend aych insisted that the series gets way better, book three is the best one, and here's a copy of book two for you to read. Okay, okay, I said. I'll give it a try.

About halfway through this book I was completely sucked in. I had been setting aside a little time to read at the end of each day, reading 20 pages here and 20 pages there, until I hit that middle section and suddenly couldn't put it down. It's a soap opera, yes, but a completely compelling one, and I loved all the soapy developments and again the complicated relationship between Elena and Lila.*

The ending here is less of a cliffhanger and more of a complete non-ending -- this is clearly part of a larger whole. I told aych I need the third installment as soon as possible.

I also loved this quote about reading: In [Lila's] notebooks I found notes on how she was reading the difficult texts: she struggled to advance, page by page, but after a while she lost the thread, she thought of something else; yet she forced her eye to keep gliding along the lines, her fingers turned the pages automatically, and by the end she had the impression that, even though she hadn't understood, the words had nevertheless entered her brain and inspired thoughts. Starting there, she reread the book and, reading, corrected her thoughts or amplified them, until the text was no longer useful, she looked for others.

*The names though. There's Lena and Lenu and Lina and Lila, Rino, Pino and Nino, and Antonio/Alfonso/Armando, and I keep thinking there's an Adolfo and an Alonzo but there's not. Have mercy, Elena Ferrante!

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