REVIEW: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

This is another book that has been sitting on my TBR shelf for a few years. I bought it after reading and enjoying Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. Then as I progressed through that Neapolitan trilogy I became less and less enthused by her writing so never picked this one up until recently.

I want to say I hated this book. The language was often filthy, the passages often overwritten and the main character not remotely likeable. But I read it at the same time I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which was banned for many of the same reasons, so I can’t.  I have to give Elena Ferrante the benefit of the doubt. Maybe a woman really would react that way to her husband leaving her for a younger woman, debase herself in despair and sink in to a personal hell where caring for her children and herself is no longer possible. Maybe the crude, raw language is meant to reiterate her hell. Maybe the translator chose the wrong English words and expressions for Ferrante’s native Italian.

I didn’t like the book. I didn’t even want to continue reading it, but I did because I needed to know that Olga would come out of this hell she had condemned herself and her children to. She blames her husband, but it is her own reactions that put them all there. It is her own actions that bring them all out.

As with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, I wish the female characters weren’t stereotypical weak women who need men to give them value, women who give up their life, hopes and dreams for a man. But maybe it’s like Twain’s Huck and all isn’t as appears on the surface. It’s a best seller in Italy so maybe as an American, I’m missing something in the translation or the culture. Or maybe this is just a type of woman I don’t relate to.

None of that makes it a bad book although I do wonder if some of the popularity doesn’t derive from the secrecy surrounding the real identity of Ferrante.

REVIEW: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is often considered one of the greatest American novels ever written.  Hemingway once said, ”All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ . . . It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” It’s on the 100 Essential Novels scratch-off poster from Pop Chart Lab that I’m working my way through. I read Tom Sawyer decades ago, but never got around to Twain’s spin-off book on Huck.

It’s an enjoyable read that will have you laughing out loud and nodding at Jim’s down home wisdom and heroism. Sadly, it’s also one of the most banned books in American history for portraying a way of life that isn’t acceptable and many Americans wish to disown. And yet I know these people, these rich characters from over 100 years ago that still thrive in rural small towns, in backwoods and parts of the South. I fall back into my West Virginia twang as I read Huck’s story told in his own brilliant vernacular, I see my beloved Mississippi River and I feel the racial tension of my Illinois high school years. Even if you didn’t have that in your past, the world Mark Twain perfectly relates would come vividly to life and you might begin to believe you did. You might recall riding a raft down that big, old, lazy river, fishing for your supper, taste homemade biscuits that melt in your mouth, or hear the fire and brimstone preacher doom you to hell for doing what in your heart you know is right no matter what the law or society says. Huck will make you believe that contrary to popular belief, we are more good than bad, more wise than foolish, more inclined to love than hate.

You can miss the brilliance of Twain’s Huck Finn and ban it for its use of “bad” words, “bad” grammar and portrayal of slaves and slavery and a slice of American life that isn’t so dreamy. But don’t. Banning the book doesn’t erase that part of our history. Banning the book only contributes to ignorance and dooms us to repeat it.

Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I have to confess that this is not the type of book I normally read, but I needed a book about a library to check off one of my book challenges and this was recommended. It reminded me of reading Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code so many years ago. I’m not sure what it is about this genre of books. They are often on best seller lists so clearly speak to the masses and yet I’m just not a fan. The plot is just too predictable and the characters too shallow. The whole time I’m reading, I’m thinking, “got it, now get to the end.” Maybe I just don’t like melodrama.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a Spanish novelist and this book is set in 1940’s Barcelona.  Young Daniel, grieving over the loss of his mother, is taken by his bookstore owning father to a cemetery of forgotten books to choose one to rescue. He chooses The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax and so begins his descent into the author’s mysterious life.

From there the story takes the predictable twists and turns, things don’t add up, characters come and go offering little pieces to the puzzle and all the while Daniel’s own coming-of-age story is told.

I did appreciate the parts of the story that touched on the history of the Spanish Civil War, Spain’s involvement in WWII and the era of Franco’s dictatorial government. It was interesting background that strengthened the landscape of the book. I also appreciated the detailed descriptions of Barcelona. The author brought the city hauntingly to mind and made me want to explore all the places he described.

And to be sure, his evident love for literature and the necessity of such is something I wholeheartedly agree with. To paraphrase Daniel, it only takes one book, the right book, to create a life-long lover of books and reading. Ruiz’s book has been translated into several languages and is sold in dozens of countries so clearly it is filling that mission for many. And in the end that’s all that matters.

REVIEW: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The poor, ex-student Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov has a Napoleonic theory that extraordinary men are exempt from morality and to test it, as well as to prove that he himself is an extraordinary man, he comes up with a plan to brutally murder an old pawnbroker. And so begins Dostoyevsky’s brilliant Crime and Punishment, first published in a Russian periodical in 1866, and reprinted and translated many times since.

Raskolnikov’s terror at what he is about to do is palpable as we panic with him just outside her door running through the entire plan over and over and reassuring our steps. It doesn’t go as planned. Someone else is here. Another murder. Where is the money? There must be a key. Why did you do that? Quiet! Calm yourself and think. Someone is coming. Hide. Now run into the night. Fool! Walk calmly. Breathe.

He spirals down in disgust at what he has done. She was but a louse and meant nothing to society, but oh, the inhumanity of it. Here is his proof that he is not an extraordinary man, he is human and subject to guilt. He succumbs to fever and delirium and suffers a physical and mental breakdown, the agony and inner turmoil so vivid that we suffer along with him.

Oh, the dialogue. The deep conversations with friends, family and himself. None of them are frivolous small talk, each is fraught with meaning and consequence and analysis. These are passionate conversations where dialogue is beautifully Russian. Oh, to be fluent in Russian, to be Russian, to have grown up reading and studying these masterful works of art. I never fail to bemoan this when I come to the end of a piece of Russian literature, completely worn out by the emotion of living with such intense characters, tragic scenes, detailed settings and subtle wit. Oh, the humanity. My God.

His sister, basically agreeing to marry for money, and his mother, struggling on her dwindling pension, come to St. Petersburg and despair at the state of him. The seemingly bumbling detective Petrovich appears to come ever closer to solving the case. The life-worn Christian young prostitute Sonya, who Raskolnikov shows kindness and gives money to, convinces him to confess, come to God and be set free through repentance. Siberian prison. Humility. Mercy. Forgiveness. Love. Cures for what threatened to destroy him. Breathe.

Virginia Woolf once said of Dostoyevsky’s novels, “Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture.” Oh, yes that, but I go willingly. Oh so willingly.

REVIEW: The Girl in the Blue Beret by Bobbie Ann Mason

During a dear friend’s visit she finished reading Bobbie Ann Mason’s The Girl in the Blue Beret and upon leaving thought I would enjoy it and left it for me to read. I had just finished Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety so although my expectation of historical fiction was high; I was also looking forward to a lighter read. Mason’s book is based on the true account of her late father-in-law’s experiences in WWII, but it’s mostly a modern day story with historical passages thrown in as the main character, Marshall, tries to come to terms with his past.

Marshall was a B-17 bomber pilot. His plane, the Dirty Lily, was shot down over Belgium during his 10th mission. He was rescued by members of the French Resistance and eventually made his way safely back to England and the U.S. Now 40 years later, forced into retirement and recently widowed, he moves to France to find those brave people that helped him.

Most of Mason’s historical passages come from published histories and interviews of WWII veterans and some from travelling to France herself and meeting with people who had been involved in the Resistance. She does a good job of letting the realness of those parts of the book stand on their own merit. She adds vivid visual details from her own time there that bring it all to life, both the past and the present.

Marshall’s search brings him closure of his long held guilt at not doing more during the war, at being finished after only 10 missions, at the loss of the crew members that didn’t survive the crash or ended up in POW camps. It also possibly brings him a second chance at love.

The most impactful part of Mason’s novel is the bravery and selflessness of the Resistance fighters. Young people who had to grow up too fast taking on adult responsibilities and average families already destitute by the war who risked their lives to protect bravado young Allied soldiers. Soldiers who they would harrowingly get back to safety while the French stayed under Nazi Occupation, we’re caught and executed, sent to labor camps or Holocaust camps where they endured well documented horrors. Unlike soldiers taken prisoner during the war, Geneva Convention rules didn’t apply to the captured French Resistance fighters.

Mason’s treatment of both the soldiers and the Resistance fighters in the novel is heartfelt and respectful of what they went through and how utterly it shaped their lives and personas in the modern day parts of the story. Her writing is direct with descriptive journeys and not a lot of sentimentality, stoic much like the way Marshall is portrayed. This is simply a story that needed telling and any frivolity would have detracted from it. Sometimes that’s exactly what a good book does.

REVIEW: The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Years ago I tried to read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova after a friend recommended it, but I just couldn’t get in to the story. I think I gave up about a third of the way in. I never bothered with The Swan Thieves and I only decided to read her newest book, The Shadow Land, because I currently live in Sofia.

I liked the book because I love Bulgaria and the Bulgarian people. I’ve been to many of the places she writes about and so much of it felt like home. I’ve met Bulgarians who really will drop what they’re doing to help a foreigner. In fact, the character Bobby could easily be based on a real Sofia taxi driver that many of us in the Ex-pat community know and love.

But I’m still not a fan of Kostova’s writing style. So much of it feels dumbed down and predictable. The main character, Alexandra, is a young American who has come to Bulgaria, a country that always intrigued her deceased brother, to teach English. She mixes up her luggage with someone else’s at a local hotel and in trying to give it back, a journey of intrigue ensues.

The parts of the story that involve her brother seem almost an afterthought and don’t really fit in. I suppose it is background meant to add depth to Alexandra, but that could just as easily have been accomplished with one of her heartfelt conversations with Bobby. It’s through those that we learn the most about her anyway and it’s the Bulgarians in the novel who have the real depth and offer the story that holds the reader’s attention.

The story alternates between the present and the past. We go back in time, when Bulgaria was communist, when life was a little more difficult, movement wasn’t quite so free and labor camps were a reality. In the present day, Bobby explains the political corruption (Transparency International recently named Bulgaria the most corrupt country in the E.U.) that still has a hold on his country and the concrete apartment blocks, overgrown parks with rusted out playgrounds, and empty factories leftover from the communist era. We travel to quaint villages where time seems to have stood still and through majestic mountains that rise about centuries-old monasteries.

Kostova clearly loves Bulgaria and when she focuses her novel on the country, its past and its present, that love practically jumps off the page into the reader’s heart. Read The Shadow Land for that – to fall in love with Bulgaria and its people.