An offer of the latest Latin American import from Charco Press prompted me to scour my shelves and see what other books I might add for #WITMonth. I dug out two novella-length books I’d bought secondhand over the past year to make it a trio. My rating for all:
The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante
[Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein]
Leda is a 47-year-old teacher on holiday in southern Italy. She mostly sits on the beach, minding her own business, but still gets drawn into the minor daily dramas of a large Neapolitan family. One woman is pregnant; another has a small child named Elena who is devastated at losing her doll. Their mother–daughter dynamic takes Leda back to the time when she abandoned her own daughters and didn’t see them for three years. She temporarily found it impossible to reconcile motherhood with her career and her general sense of herself. Leda sees herself as part of a “chain of mute or angry women” – “I seemed to be falling backward toward my mother, my grandmother.”
I was definitely on board for the memories of motherly guilt. Where Ferrante lost me was when Leda steals the doll the child left behind and takes it up to her room to care for it – washing it, buying it new clothes, etc. Every time she sets out to give the doll back or at least leave it somewhere it will be found, she finds another excuse to put it off. Leda herself is unsure why she’s fixated on the doll; “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand,” she says early on.
Most likely the doll could be interpreted as a symbol of Leda’s desire to be part of a functional family, to get a second chance at perfection with her daughters. But the book was a little too strange for me, and I never really engaged with the Neapolitan characters. After this and a skim of My Brilliant Friend a couple years back, I doubt I’ll pick up anything else by Ferrante. The themes and style of this one reminded me of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, A Separation by Katie Kitamura, and Hot Milk by Deborah Levy.
“Life can have an ironic geometry. Starting from the age of thirteen or fourteen I had aspired to a bourgeois decorum, proper Italian, a good life, cultured and reflective. Naples had seemed a wave that would drown me. I didn’t think the city could contain life forms different from those I had known as a child, violent or sensually lazy, tinged with sentimental vulgarity or obtusely fortified in defense of their own wretched degradation. I didn’t even look for them, those forms, in the past or in a possible future. I had run away like a burn victim who, screaming, tears off the burned skin, believing that she is tearing off the burning itself.”
Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo
[Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe]
Fish Soup contains two novellas (one of them, Sexual Education, was previously unpublished) separated by a set of seven short stories, and marks the first time the Colombian author Margarita García Robayo’s work has appeared in English. I especially liked the title story, in which a widower starts to smell his dead wife Helena’s fish soup in the bar that he owns and goes to investigate, all the while mixing up his dreams and memories with what’s really happening.
My other favorite piece was the opening novella, Waiting for a Hurricane, in which the narrator longs for escape from her seaside home, wanting nothing more than to be a “foreigner.” She starts a law degree but gives it up to become an air hostess, making flights to and from Miami and elsewhere. From her childhood onward, Gustavo has been a major presence in her life, teaching her to prepare fish and telling her stories, but there’s an uncomfortable element to their relationship that’s never really addressed. The mixture of quirky happenings and darker material reminded me of Swallowing Mercury, while the cancer theme of the story “Like a Pariah” recalls Hair Everywhere.
One of my frequent issues with short fiction is a preponderance of inconclusive endings that make you wonder what the point could be. I experienced that a few times with this collection, especially at the close of Waiting for a Hurricane. Judging by the title, though, the main message I drew from the novella is that you can’t just go around waiting for momentous things to happen to you, for your ‘real’ life to start; you have to recognize that this is life, here and now: in storytelling, in spicy stews, in everyday moments with friends and family.
With thanks to Charco Press for the free copy for review.
Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet by Xinran
[Translated from the Chinese by Julia Lovell and Esther Tyldesley]
In 1994 Xinran, a Chinese journalist who later moved to London, met a woman whose story captured her imagination. Shu Wen received word that her husband, Kejun, had died just months into their marriage. A doctor in the People’s Liberation Army, he’d been sent into Tibet in the 1960s after its ‘liberation’. With no details or body to confirm his demise, though, Wen refused to believe Kejun was gone, and traveled to Tibet to find him. She stayed there for over 30 years – more than half her life – living with a Tibetan family and adjusting to their culture and rituals as she sought word of her husband. The gender roles surprised her: men did the sewing and women had multiple husbands. It was a land of lamas and temples; “the whole of Tibet was one great monastery,” she felt.
Wen does eventually learn the truth of what happened to her husband (whew!), and after decades of living as a superstitious Buddhist in primitive conditions has to readjust to life in a new China, having completely missed the Cultural Revolution. She clings to words of wisdom from a military official: “Whatever happens, remember one thing: just staying alive is a victory” and “Writing can be a source of strength.” He then gave her a diary that she filled with letters to Kejun over the years.
It’s a pleasant, short book made up of layers of tales: the legends and history lessons Wen hears from Tibetans; what she conveys to Xinran during their two intense days together; and the resulting narrative Xinran spent nearly a decade imagining herself into. Kejun’s fate is worth waiting around to hear about (but if you know what the title refers to you might consider it a spoiler), though this is something of a thin story overall. I’ve seen it referred to as a novel, though I consider it more of a stylized biography.
Did you do any special reading for Women in Translation month this year?
By Hope Jahren
This memoir puts so many things together that it shouldn’t work, yet somehow – delightfully – does. With witty anecdotes and recreated dialogue, Jahren tells about her Minnesota upbringing, crossing the country to take up geobiology/botany academic posts in Atlanta, Baltimore and Hawaii, her long-time platonic relationship with eccentric lab partner Bill, and zany road trips for conferences and field work. On the serious side, she writes about how bipolar disorder complicated work life, marriage and motherhood. Add to that the interspersed chapters illuminating aspects of plant biology and you get a truly varied and intricate narrative. What Jahren does best is simply convey what it is like to have true passion for your work, a rare thing. You don’t have to be a science type to enjoy this book. All that’s required is curiosity about how others live. Jahren might even inspire you to go plant a tree.
It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool, Too)
By Nora McInerny Purmort
Purmort was hit by a triple whammy of loss: within weeks of miscarrying her second child, both her father and her husband were dead of cancer. After a seizure revealed his brain tumor, she and Aaron got engaged on his hospital bed and went through fertility treatment to have their son. All in all they got three years together, after which the Minneapolis-based author founded what she calls the “Hot Widows Club.” She’s only about my age but, as she puts it, has “been through some shit.” The book is in the form of short essays, a lot like blog entries, that tread the fine line between heartbreak and humor. I might have preferred a bit more of a narrative; I wearied of open letters and lists. The book is best where she eases up on self-deprecating jokes and pop culture references and just tells her story, so much of which resonates with my sister’s experience. As soon as I finished the book, I ordered her a copy.
My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome
By Amy Silverman
When her younger daughter Sophie was born with Down’s syndrome in 2003, Silverman had no idea what to expect. The long-time Arizona journalist put her investigative skills to work, finding out everything she could about the discovery of Down’s and the history of how patients have been treated down the decades. In addition, she delves into the foundation of the Special Olympics (which had a connection with the Kennedy family) and its alternatives, and – not being a “support group kinda girl,” the other sources of encouragement she finds, especially through fellow bloggers. A significant portion of the book is about finding the best schools for Sophie – information that may well be not just U.S.-specific but particular to Arizona, where charter schools are popular. Still, what comes through is Silverman’s fierce love for her daughter and her insistence that every person with Down’s is an individual.
How to Ruin Everything: Essays
By George Watsky
Watsky is a slam poet and rap/hip hop artist from San Francisco. These essays about his misadventures reminded me most of Lauren Weedman (Miss Fortune) and John Jeremiah Sullivan (Pulphead). My favorite pieces were “Tusk,” on smuggling a narwhal tusk from Canada to the States to be his roommate’s great-aunt June’s hundredth birthday present, and “The White Whale,” about his unreliable tour bus. Others see him moving from a crumbling Boston college house to the heart of Hollywood deadbeat territory, traveling through India, fishing in Alaska, trying to attract older women, and reflecting on a childhood love of baseball. In the other stand-out essay, a more serious one, he reveals his experience of epilepsy and weaves in the history of its diagnosis and treatment. Also remarkable was a mention of Pauly Shore, a personage I haven’t thought about in, oh, I don’t know, a decade?
Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law
By Katherine Wilson
This is just the kind of book I would want to write about my experience studying abroad in England and eventually settling here. Of course, Wilson had it harder: she had to conduct her romance with Salvatore Avallone, relate to her future in-laws, and start a career all in a different language. But there were consolation prizes, chief among them the food. A lot of the best anecdotes revolve around Italian cuisine, like Salva’s mother Raffaella sending food down to her daughter in the apartment below via the elevator, or his uncle catching octopi with his one arm. I loved the colorful Italian and Neapolitan dialect expressions Wilson dots around, and as a fellow expat it was interesting to see what her non-negotiable American imports are (we all have our own list, I’m sure): wall-to-wall carpeting, air conditioning, a garbage disposal, and peanut butter – I’m with her on that last one, anyway.
(For each one, read my full Goodreads review by clicking on the title link.)
Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?
Note: I’m traveling until the 24th so won’t be responding to comments right away, but will be sure to catch up soon after I’m back. I always welcome your thoughts!
I paid my 40 pence and waited in what felt like an endless holds queue to get my hands on a public library copy of My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels. For months I’d been eager to try out this literary phenomenon in translation. I read about the first 100 pages and then my interest started to tail off. Aware of the impending due date, I skimmed the rest – so this doesn’t count towards my year’s reading list.
What went wrong? I didn’t dislike the book; in fact, I found it to be an accomplished psychological study of a female friendship and how it changes over time. Yet there were some factors that kept me at a distance. I’ll give a quick synopsis before listing pros and cons.
Elena, in her sixties, gets a call from the son of her childhood best friend, Lila. His mother and all her possessions have vanished from her home. Elena recalls Lila’s longtime desire to disappear without a trace, and decides she won’t let her: she sits down to her computer to write the story of their friendship, a bulwark against failing memory and deliberate sabotage.
From here Elena, a novelist in her own right (often assumed to be an autobiographical stand-in for Ferrante), returns to the girls’ childhood in 1940s and 1950s Naples, a place of organized crime, domestic violence, and what seems like surprising social backwardness. Neapolitan dialect contrasts with educated Italian. Lila and Elena have a low-key academic rivalry until Lila has to quit school to help her father, a shoemaker. Even then Lila finds ways to show her friend up, maxing out her whole family’s library cards and learning Latin and Greek on her own time. Lila is always one step ahead of Elena, whether in her studies or in attracting boys’ attention. This volume concludes with Lila’s wedding at the age of 16.
What I Loved:
- The psychological acuity Ferrante brings to the relationship between Elena and Lila. Their friendship has a shifting dynamic, vacillating between jealousy and support as they move from childhood through puberty. The novel powerfully captures Elena’s hesitation and Lila’s brazenness, often in piercing one-liners:
she did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life.
In general I was the pretty one, while she was skinny, like a salted anchovy, she gave off an odor of wildness
Lila acted … on me like a demanding ghost
only what Lila touched became important.
- The choice between education and a trade. Money and class have a lot to do with it, but both girls long for a Woolfian “room of one’s own” and even talk of writing novels together one day. Although Lila finds fulfillment designing shoes, it’s plain she envies Elena’s chance to complete high school. “My brilliant friend” is what Lila calls Elena late on in the novel, but it’s what Elena has always thought of Lila too.
- The Naples setting: Don Achille’s murder; setting off fireworks on New Year’s; the sense that the community is on the up and up when someone they know publishes a book. A few of my favorite lines describe the girls’ neighborhood:
We didn’t know the origin of that fear-rancor-hatred-meekness that our parents displayed toward the Carraccis and transmitted to us, but it was there, it was a fact, like the neighborhood, its dirty-white houses, the fetid odor of the landings, the dust of the streets.
What I Struggled with:
- A lack of context. Footnotes would have been intrusive, but perhaps a short introduction from the translator or an English-language critic could have helped set the scene and given some sociological details that would aid in my understanding of mid-twentieth-century Italy. Even just within the first chapter of Only in Naples by Katherine Wilson, a memoir I’m currently reading, there’s more basic information about Italy to help orient foreigners.
- The confusing names. The central characters are known by multiple names – for example, Lila’s full name is Raffaella Cerullo – and nicknames aren’t always intuitive; it reminded me of the variations in War & Peace. Thank goodness for the three-page index of characters.
- Short shrift given to Elena’s odd relationship with her mother. I felt there was a lot more that could have been explored. Perhaps that is a matter for another volume.
- Repetition in the day to day, especially regarding Elena’s schooling. I wondered whether all four, or at least two, of the books might have been condensed into one 400-page novel.
- Minor punctuation and translation issues. I only marked out one passage that sounded false to my ear (“I’ve kept a place for you.” / “Go away, my mother has understood everything.”), but the punctuation drove me a little nutty. I dislike lots of phrases being strung together with commas – as in the anchovy sentence above; I always look for a semicolon!
In general, I avoid series fiction. I hate being saddled with a sense of obligation, and I don’t like feeling that a story is unfinished. That doesn’t mean a book’s last pages can’t be open-ended, but I’d prefer to imagine my own future for the characters rather than have to read about it in another book or three or 14. While I seriously doubt I will pick up another of the Neapolitan novels, I could possibly be persuaded to pick up one of her stand-alone novellas. Naomi at Consumed by Ink wrote a very appealing review of The Lost Daughter, for instance. Although this long-awaited literary experiment was a touch disappointing, I’m still eager to try another model of “autofiction” in translation, Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Further reading: Meghan O’Rourke’s 2014 Guardian article about Elena Ferrante’s growing popularity and mysterious persona.